Interview: Ronald Pies

Interview with Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Ronald PiesQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a psychiatrist, medical ethicist, amateur philosopher, and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In short, I can’t quite figure out what to do with myself!

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

Having retired from clinical practice, I no longer have occasion to use Stoic principles in my psychotherapeutic work, but I did make use of those principles for many years. Of course, the overlap between CBT, REBT and Stoicism has been discussed many times, and the parallels are very clear–even though the Stoic tradition has many rich layers of spiritual meaning not intrinsically a part of CBT and REBT. (That said, Albert Ellis, PhD –the “father” of REBT– explicitly acknowledged his debt to Epictetus, as you know).

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I think I came to Stoicism via REBT, and later, via Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) and the rabbinical tradition. As I try to show in my book, The Three-Petalled Rose, there is an immense amount of “overlap” between the rabbinical tradition and that of the Stoics. And while Maimonides is usually associated with Aristotle, much of his work as a physician (and arguably, as the “Father of Psychosomatic Medicine”) drew on ideas developed much earlier by the Stoics.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Although I am indebted to the Stoics for their cognitive approach to what might be called “human happiness” (or better, eudaimonia), I am most appreciative of their ethical and moral framework; in particular, the idea that the person of virtue cannot be harmed by anything (e.g., the opinion of others, misfortune, etc.) so long as he or she continues to be guided by virtue. And I am also grateful, in particular, to Marcus Aurelius for his views on “duty”; e.g., “I do my duty. Nothing else troubles me.” Clearly, this overlaps with the Stoic view of happiness or eudaimonia.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

As the world seems to grow more chaotic and brutal by the day –and, yes, I know Stephen Pinker has argued against this view– I find a greater need than ever for Stoic principles of reason, moderation, restraint, and tolerance. Stoicism, it seems to me, is a bulwark against extremism in all its vile forms – and this is a great gift bequeathed to us in our rough and ramshackle times.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

As I confront my own aging, and the illness and frailty of family and friends, I am comforted by the wisdom of Seneca (cf. On the Shortness of Life) and Cicero (cf. On Old Age). And Stoic principles help me cope, nearly every day, with “the slings and arrows” life sends our way, from professional disappointments to personal losses. Perhaps most important, the Stoic emphasis on “gratitude” helps sustain me through rough times. Here, the Stoics are at one with the rabbis of the Talmud; e.g., “Ben Zoma says, Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion.” [Pirke Avot 4.1]

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

There are so many, it’s very hard to choose one or two! I suppose if forced, I would pick that of Marcus Aurelius: “There is but one thing of real value – to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.”

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

There are many excellent introductions to the topic, including but not limited to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford U. Press, 2008). But it’s hard to beat Marcus Aurelius himself, especially in the translation of his Meditations titled, The Emperor’s Handbook, vibrantly translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks (Scribner, 2002)

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Yes, Donald – I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and others who post on the “Stoicism Today” website, and for this opportunity to share a bit of my own perspective. So, thank you!

Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Stoic Theology, Science, and Love: Thoughts on Stoic Week 2016 by William O. Stephens

WOS 2016 May

I’ve been studying and writing about Stoicism since about 1988. I’ve been professing about Stoicism to undergraduate students at Creighton University in Nebraska since 1990. When the opportunity to participate in Stoic Week 2016 arose, I figured that it was high time for me take the plunge. I’m glad I did.

When completing the online questionnaire, the first thing that struck me was how clear and well-crafted the questions were. I was also impressed with how the framers of this questionnaire combined items that test one’s beliefs in Stoic doctrines with items that test one’s psychological dispositions. This is as we should expect. Stoic thinking inspired the contemporary psychological theories of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Thus, the scientific application of Stoic therapies is entirely appropriate. But what surprised me in taking the Stoic Week questionnaire was the item that tested my belief that the universe is an enormous, rational, living being that can accurately be called ‘God.’

On the one hand, the surviving fragments certainly seem to indicate that both the earliest Stoics (Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Chrysippus) held this theological belief. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is an earnest expression of this theological belief, for example. What about the later Roman Stoics? To judge from their writings, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius also believed that Zeus was the Right Reason steering the cosmos. Indeed, Epictetus argues that since sheep produce wool and milk, and we can make clothes from their wool and cheese from their milk, divine providence exists. Epictetus believes that Zeus our cosmic Father. Zeus makes plants grow and fruit. Zeus gives us animals so that we can domesticate them and sustain ourselves using them as we wish. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, seems to grant the possibility that the atomists are right, and that there is no divine providence. But, Marcus reasons that if it is all just atoms swerving together and apart, then morality itself disappears. Marcus cannot countenance such a world, so he clings to the theological belief that the universe is rationally organized by a supreme Stoic ‘God.’

So, must a modern stoic share this theological belief in a god responsible for plants, the domestication of some nonhuman animals, and the organization of the universe? Surely not. Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism was published in 1998. Becker offers a contemporary stoicism (uncapitalized) free of theological commitments. Becker’s neostoicism is about perfecting one’s agency in order to live one’s life as well as possible. To live well means to live virtuously and happily, making the best decisions every day all things considered. The lessons Becker draws from the ancient Stoics are aimed at this practical, entirely secular endeavor. Becker shows that one can adopt the ethics of the ancient Stoics without buying into Stoic theology. A modern stoic who takes science seriously avoids the problems of explaining how Zeus makes trees give fruit and how Zeus makes sheep produce wool and milk for our clothes and cheese. Modern stoics can praise Charles Darwin and the science of evolution in lieu of singing a hymn to the Zeus of Cleanthes.

On the other hand, ancient Stoicism exerted a wide, deep, and lasting influence on early Christianity. My students didn’t know that the Serenity Prayer derives from the ancient Stoics. Thus, the appearance of the Serenity Prayer in Stoic Week is apt:

God, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
the courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to tell the difference.

For a modern stoic, prayer is silly. If God helps those who help themselves, then really we have to help ourselves because no one and nothing else will. So, for a modern stoic, the Serenity Prayer really just amounts to urging oneself to be serene, courageous, and wise. It made sense for the early Christians to appropriate the wisdom of the Stoics and theologize it. But a scientific-minded modern stoic needs no theology at all to apply Stoic therapies to her daily living. Psychological health need not appeal to bad metaphysics. The ancient Stoics were physicalists who believed that human souls were as physical as human bodies. But a modern stoic can dispense with the notion of a soul and turn to our best empirical neuroscience instead.

What a modern stoic cannot dispense with is love. That’s why it was so appropriate for the theme of Stoic Week 2016 to be love. The ancient Stoics were, of course, philosophers. To be a philosopher is to be lover of wisdom. Thus, Stoics love wisdom. Indeed, the Stoics argued that our special human ability is reason, and the perfection of reason is virtue. The Stoics further reasoned that a virtuous person has a well-toned soul. Again, Stoic physicalism insists that the soul is a physical thing, not a non-physical phantom as the Platonists believed. The virtuous person, the Stoics believed, has a well-toned, well-conditioned soul, and this psychic disposition is what they called wisdom. Thus, the Stoic wise person—the sage—is possessed of the virtue of wisdom. This wisdom is then applied to all the different spheres of activity in life. Wisdom applied to our appetites for food, drink, and sex is what is called temperance. Wisdom applied to our interactions with other people and the distribution of resources is what is called justice. Wisdom applied to what we ought to be confident about and what we ought to be cautious about is what is called courage. So, then, how is a modern stoic to think about love?

The Stoic Week 2016 theme of love invokes quotations from Marcus Aurelius about benevolence and kindness towards others and treating others fairly and impartially. This is a decent understanding of how Marcus thinks about justice. But the Stoic Week authors go astray when they present Stoic love simply in terms of justice. There are many different kinds of love. Philanthropy, the love of human beings, is only one of them. There is also our love of friends. The love we have for our friends is not modulated by concerns of justice. We give our friends gift and we are partial to them. There’s nothing wrong with our partiality for our friends. We do not violate justice by being partial to our friends. Nor do we violate justice by being even more partial to our closest loved ones, spouses, and children. This love for our spouses, domestic partners, and children is what most non-philosophers regard as “real love.” So it is disappointing that the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 make no mention whatsoever of how a Stoic loves his significant other, children, or parents.

Are there ancient Stoics who discuss the love of parents for their children? Most certainly. Epictetus, the slave turned famous teacher, says that once you have a child, it is no longer in your power not to love that child. The bond between parent and child is both natural and strong, and Epictetus recognizes this. Now Epictetus chose not to marry and have children. Instead, he devoted decades of his life to teaching Stoicism to students. Late in life Epictetus adopted an orphaned child and welcomed a woman into his home to help him raise and care for his adopted child. Was Epictetus derelict in his duty by not marrying and reproducing when in his prime? His master Musonius Rufus argues explicitly that people (including Stoics) have a duty to marry and beget LOTS of children for the good of the state and the good of the human race. So why didn’t Epictetus heed this advice of his teacher? Though we can only speculate, I will make bold to offer an explanation of this.

Epictetus argues that only the wise know how to love. He reasons as follows.

  1. People are earnest about bad things, or things that in no respect concern them, or good things.
  2. People are earnest neither about bad things nor about things that in no respect concern them.
  3. Hence, people are earnest only about good things. [From 1, 2, disjunctive syllogism]
  4. If one is earnest about a thing, then one loves that thing.
  5. Hence, people love good things. [From 3, 4, modus ponens]
  6. If one has knowledge of good things, then one knows how to love (good things).
  7. If one is unable to distinguish good things from bad things or from things that are neither, then one does not know how to love (good things).
  8. The wise person has knowledge of good things, bad things, and things that are neither.
  9. Hence, the wise person knows how to love (good things).
  10. The non-wise are unable to distinguish good things from bad things from things that are neither.
  11. Hence, the non-wise do not know how to love (good things). [From 7, 10, modus ponens]
  12. Therefore, only the wise person knows how to love (good things). [From 9, 11]

This argument is remarkable. Epictetus believes that unless you know that the only truly good thing is virtue, that the only truly bad thing is vice, and that everything else (life, death, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, political clout, political powerlessness, health, illness, etc.) is neither good nor bad, then you have no power to love. This is because the only truly lovable thing is goodness, virtue. Non-Stoics who think they love pleasure are mistaken, because pleasure is not a good thing. To think you love beauty is a mistake, since one can only be earnest and take seriously virtue, moral integrity, wisdom. To successfully love, Epictetus argues, is to love good things. Fame, celebrity, health, beauty, and wealth are all fleeting baubles, according to the Stoics. The only truly admirable thing is virtue (wisdom). The only thing that wins the respect of a Stoic is honesty, integrity, courage, justice, temperance, and all the other names we have for the one state of mind called ‘virtue’ or ‘wisdom.’

So, then, this bring us back to the love of others. Many non-stoics believe that the way to love others is to improve their material conditions. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Liberate captives. Treat the sick. Empower the oppressed. (Or: teach the hungry how to fish.) While these acts of humanitarianism are certainly dictated by a Stoic’s commitment to justice, they are motivated by benevolence, kindness, and/or a sense of fairness. Social justice goes hand in hand with philanthropic benevolence. But the virtue of benevolence is directed toward all human beings, not any one or few specific individuals.

Were there individuals that Epictetus loved prior to his adoption of the orphaned child? I think the evidence is clear. These were the individuals sitting in his classroom. Epictetus loved his students. He loved his students as their teacher and mentor. I suggest that in teaching them Stoicism, he believed that he was best equipping them to pursue wisdom and become virtuous. Only by gaining wisdom could his students learn what was good, what was bad, and what was neither. Only by becoming Stoics could they develop the ability to love good things. Thus, the way that Epictetus loved others was by teaching them the Stoic wisdom they had to gain in order to be able to love others too.

Whether we love others and treat them in loving ways is up to us. Whether others love us and treat us in loving ways is up to them, not us. Again, we discover another gem of Stoic wisdom from Epictetus: Love others freely. Don’t make your love of them conditional upon them loving you. What is lovable in others is their goodness, honesty, candor, sincerity, generosity, courage, perseverance, faithfulness, decency, integrity, kindness, affection, warmth, and fairness. Virtue is to be taken very seriously. Virtue is lovable. Epictetus tried to model to his students being serious about becoming the very best person he could possibly become. That is what good role models do. The best teachers inspire us to become better persons. Thanks to his student Arrian writing down the lectures he heard from his master Epictetus, we modern stoics can continue to be inspired by the great teacher Epictetus even today. And while the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 do a good job of featuring generally apt quotations from Marcus Aurelius and to a lesser extent Seneca and Musonius Rufus, it’s unfortunate that the Discourses of Epictetus were so neglected as a source of Stoic wisdom on this year’s theme of love.

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine


Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

Audio Recordings from Stoicon 2016

Audio recordings from Stoicon 2016, available for download as MP3 files.

Stoicon 2016 was a huge success!

You can now download MP3 audio recordings of the talks below…  Here’s the opening talk by Massimo Pigliucci called “Stoicism 101”.

Stoicon 2016 Logo

You can download the files by right-clicking on the speaker’s name and selecting the Save link as… or Download option from your browser’s context menu.

  1. Donald Robertson
    Stoicism, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Therapy
  2. Julia Annas
    Is Stoic Virtue as Off-putting as it Seems?
  3. William Irvine
    On Becoming an Insult Pacifist
  4. Lawrence Becker
    Stoic Ethics-in-Action
  5. Debbie Joffe Ellis
    Albert Ellis, A Model of Resiliency, Compassion, and Stoicism in Action
  6. Christopher Gill
    Can you be a Stoic and a Political Activist?
  7. Cinzia Arruzza
    Let us Take Care of Ourselves, Stoic Exercises and Foucault
  8. Jules Evans
    Stoicism as a Wellbeing Intervention in the Workplace, prisons and Mental Health Charities
  9. KEYNOTE – Ryan Holiday
    The Daily Stoic: Practical Philosophy for Pragmatic People

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2016 Demographics Report 

by Tim LeBon

cropped-socrates-v1 2

This report gives the demographics for Stoic Week 2016 which took place between October Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October. Future reports will follow providing analysis of how taking part affected well-being.

The headlines are:

  • The ratio of males to females was 66% to 33%.
  • Over 43% of respondents are from USA.
  • The majority of respondents have never participated in Stoic week before.
  • Less people completed the questionnaires compared to last year (1798 down from 2503) although the numbers registering for Stoic Week actually increased (3365 up from 3080).

Below are 5 tables summarising all the facts and figures and 2015 comparisons


Gender Total % 2015 %
Male 1183 66 65
Female 602 33 34
didn’t say 13 1 1

Table 1: Stoic Week 2016 by gender


Age Total % 2015 %
over 55 234 13 17
46-55 314 17 18
36-45 382 21 23
26-35  455 25 25
18-25 394 22 16
Under 18 17 1 2

Table 2: Stoic Week 2016 by age


Location Total   % 2015 %
USA 774 43 42
Australasia  85 5 5
Canada 215 12 16
Europe (outside UK)) 310 17 15
UK 255 14 17
Africa 10 1 1
Asia 51 3 2
South & Central America 54 3 1
Other 36 2 2

 Table 3: Stoic Week 2015 by geographic location


Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Total % 2015 %
0 1389 77 78
1 253 14 16
2 101 6 4
3 48 3 2
4 12 1 0

Table 4: Stoic Week 2016 : Previous participation


Knowledge of Stoicism Total     % 2015 %
None 202 11 13
Novice 594 33 32
I know a bit  705 39 38
I know quite a bit but not an expert 288 16 16
Expert 13 1 1

Table 5: Stoic Week 2016 : Self-rating of knowledge of Stoicism


Whilst the overall picture is not unhealthy, here are some questions to consider – answers please in the comments section!

  • Why does Stoic Week seem to appeal more to men? How can we get the gender ratio more equal?
  • Can Stoic Week spread to other geographical areas? What would facilitate this?
  • Is it realistic to expect people to participate more than once in Stoic Week? If so, would changing the materials help?
  • What should we base the handbook on next year? We’ve had Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should it be based more on Seneca? Or is it fine as it is?

Let us know your thoughts.

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems? by Julia Annas

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems?

by Julia Annas

hercules and hydra

Stoic ethics can be more or less off-putting depending on which aspect of it you encounter, or encounter first. Many people responded to Admiral Stockdale’s reliance on Epictetus to survive captivity and torture, and similar accounts can draw people into Stoic ethics in a way that gets them to see what is inspiring about it. Stoicism is sometimes encountered by people who are suffering, or in terrible circumstances, and they come to see how Stoicism can help them come through without being irreparably broken.

But many of us are not in terrible circumstances, and we hope to enter Stoic ethics through the gate of their account of virtue. We want to be better people and to live better lives, and we ask how the Stoics see this project. And we run into a problem. Stoic accounts of virtue are notoriously abrasive and off-putting to someone who is not already committed to finding it worthwhile to explore Stoicism. The Stoics have a number of theses about virtue which are basic to their ethics, and they are notoriously repellent to the non-Stoic. This is not just our problem as citizens of the 21st century; this is a feature of Stoicism that was found off-putting in the ancient world.

Firstly, for Stoics virtue is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness. To understand this, of course, we have to become aware that what the Stoics mean by virtue and by happiness are not what immediately springs to mind for us. Happiness is not a feeling or a mood, as so many recent books on happiness assume. It is eudaimonia, the flourishing of a whole life. Happiness, in this sense of eudaimonia, is our final end, the ultimate expression of our attempt to live a good life and to appreciate good values. So, if virtue is necessary and sufficient for that, it’s clearly the most important thing for us to be thinking about and trying to achieve in our lives. We come to Stoicism wanting to find out the right way to achieve happiness, eudaimonia , because this – how best to live – is the entry point to ethical reflection in the ancient world. We are told that what is necessary and sufficient for that is for us to become virtuous. So we turn eagerly to find what virtue is, since it is all-important for us to become virtuous.

What do we find? The Stoics tell us that there are no degrees of virtue; everyone is either virtuous or vicious, and given their demands on virtue, we are all vicious. Only the sage – the completely virtuous person – is virtuous, and, given that the sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix, we are all stuck with being vicious. If we’re not already Stoics we don’t really know even how to process these ideas. Why do the Stoics apparently make it so difficult for us to understand; why are the main things they say about virtue so much at variance with common-sense and ordinary beliefs?

The Stoics aren’t elitist about virtue; they think it is open to anyone in any walk of life. But this makes it even odder that their views about virtue are so off-putting, especially to ordinary people without philosophical training. We might start to wonder whether they really care about non-Stoics becoming Stoics. There is a contrast here with the Epicureans, who thought that becoming an Epicurean was urgent for non-Epicureans. A 2nd century CE Epicurean called Diogenes in the city of Oenoanda (in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) was distressed that his fellow-citizens’ lives were going so badly and unhappily, and so from ‘love of humanity’ he set up, at vast expense, a massive stone inscription, like a large permanent billboard, so that people using the market to shop and meet would have to encounter the truths of Epicureanism, which he was convinced would cure them. (Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 3)

By comparison the Stoics seem to wait for us to come to them, and then to be willing to accept off-putting theses if we are seriously trying to become virtuous through Stoicism. We lack helpful Stoic discussion that helps us much if at all by way of easy introduction to Stoic ideas about virtue. And this is disconcerting. Thoughts about virtue and happiness are the starting point for ethical theories in general in the ancient world, and increasingly today many people find that they want to know what an ethical theory has to tell them about happiness and virtue.

So it is alarming to find, when you are aiming to become a Stoic, and to understand what is required of you, that:

  • There are no degrees of virtue
  • There are no degrees of vice
  • There is no state between virtue and vice; if you are not virtuous you are vicious.
  • Only the sage is virtuous. But
  • The sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix;
  • So, we are all vicious.[1]

To start with, there are no degrees of virtue. Either you are virtuous, or not; there is no such thing as being more virtuous or less virtuous. So, despite having rethought your life so as to give more money, more time and more energy to good causes, you are no more generous than you were. Despite your rethinking your priorities and your best efforts to live up to this, you are no more honest, brave or tactful than you were. Only when you become completely generous, honest, brave, tactful and have all the rest of the virtues in the right way will you become virtuous, that is, generous, honest, brave and tactful.

Nothing, it appears, could be more off-putting to a beginner; it doesn’t matter how hard, and how intelligently, you try, you will still be no braver, more tactful or whatever other virtues you aim for. (The beginner can be told that there are other reasons, elsewhere in the system of Stoic philosophy, for accepting this. For example, virtue requires knowledge, and knowledge does not, for the Stoics, come in degrees. But this hardly helps the beginner focus on becoming virtuous.) Since your best efforts don’t make you any more virtuous, why bother?

The flip side of this is no more encouraging. We ordinarily believe that most of us may be mediocre or even moderately bad, but not as bad as Hitler or Stalin, but the Stoics insist that there are no degrees of vice. They express this idea by appealing to cases where difference is not a matter of degree. A stick is either straight or it is crooked. (Diogenes Laertius, 7, 127) Blind puppies are just as blind the day before they see as they were at birth. (Plutarch, comm. not. 1063 A-B) If you are underwater in the sea, you drown whether you are an arm’s length from the surface or 500 fathoms down. (Plutarch, op.cit.) When you are not yet at your destination, you are not there, however far or near you are to it. (Diogenes Laertius 7, 120) With vice the claim that there are no degrees may seem even more offensive than with virtue. We may put up with being told that neither we nor anyone else is virtuous, but the levelling claim about vice leaves us wondering what the difference is between us and people that are extremely bad. Again, we find ourselves wondering what the point is of trying to improve, if however hard we try we are still no less vicious than the worst people.

Both of these off-putting theses can, however, be explained in ways that do make good sense. The idea that there are no degrees of virtue does not mean that there cannot be degrees of progress towards virtue. And the Stoics do believe this, since they talk about the person who is making progress in living better, the prokopton or ‘progressor’. When you reorder your priorties and try to live up to your new commitments, you are progressing towards virtue, and there can certainly be degrees of that. You may have progressed a little, or a lot. Given this, the Stoics can after all make distinctions among people who are progressing. We do this all the time, of course. Generally this takes the form of comparing our own progress with that of others, usually in a way which is unfavourable to ourselves: we find others to be better than we are in a variety of ways.

We look up to people who are braver, or more generous, or just nicer to others, than we are, and we are inspired to be like them in those ways. (We also compare ourselves favourably with others, since we can usually find people around us who are stingier or more cowardly than we are; but this obviously does nothing for our own ethical progress – it is likely to be counter-productive for that.) The Stoics are quite aware of the way we improve ethically by aspiring to become more virtuous than we are. Their theory allows for this – we just have to be careful how we conceptualize what we do. We are not becoming more virtuous, or increasing in degrees of virtue; we are progressing by degrees towards virtue, which is itself not a matter of degree.

Similarly we can draw distinctions between people even if there are no degrees of virtue. Strictly speaking, Plato was no more virtuous than the horrible tyrant Dionysius. But Plato at least was improving, whereas Dionysius was in a hopeless condition in which he could not improve. (Cicero, De Finibus 4, 56) Someone near the surface of the sea is more easily rescued than someone at the bottom. Someone near their destination has less distance to traverse than someone setting out. Distinctions that we make by talking about some people being more or less virtuous than others can be made in other ways. So the Stoics are not just flouting common sense; they can explain how their position is compatible with views we have about virtue and vice. But we still haven’t seen the point of the claim that there are no degrees of virtue.

The Stoics are insisting that virtue is an ideal that we work towards, not an endeavour that we have already made strides in. An ideal can inspire us to aspiration even if it is not something we can ever achieve, and it’s important for the Stoics that we think of it that way. Talking of virtue and vice having no degrees, and no state between them, emphasises the point that virtue is a state we are always trying to reach; there is no point when we can say, ‘Well, that was hard work, but I’m finally there; now I’m brave (generous, tactful or whatever).’

Becoming virtuous is life-long learning. This is an idea that we may find disconcerting; we almost certainly don’t want to think that we have to go on becoming virtuous right up to the day we day. The Stoics are aware of this, and want to counter it: by denying that virtue has degrees they keep right in front of our eyes the point that Stoicism is a continuing way of life. It’s not a Teach Yourself programme, where you teach yourself a subject which you then know, like learning a language, and then move on to do something else, fortified by what you have learnt. It’s a way of life which is a way of continually being and improving yourself. The initially off-putting views about virtue keep us aware of this.

It’s still hard to make sense of probably the most off-putting claim of all: only the sage is virtuous. (‘Sage’ has a lot of unfortunate suggestions, but at least it is gender-neutral, so is an improvement on the former use of ‘the wise man’ or ‘the virtuous man’.) When we put this together with the point that the sage is rarer than the mythical phoenix, we see that we are all vicious, the noblest among us as much as the thugs. The sage is the person who is completely virtuous, and this is a stage that none of us will reach. The early Stoics make things worse for us here by dwelling, frequently and prominently, on the thought that it is only the sage who is really what other people only think they are. The sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only general, the only money-maker and so on. Only the sage knows how to rule like a king, cure like a doctor, command like a general, and so on. Our sources for early Stoicism repeat and emphasise this point, sometimes at length.

This claim was widely ridiculed in the ancient world. Ancient authors point out that it is peculiar, to put it mildly, that the sage is the only king when he has no political authority, the only rich person when he is in rags, and so on. Plutarch, a 2nd century CE philosopher, tells us about a Spartan king, Eudamidas, who took a plain blunt approach. When a Stoic claimed that only the sage was a general, the king remarked that he couldn’t believe that, coming from someone who had never been in battle. (Sayings of Spartans 220e). Moreover, if the sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only lawgiver, cook, carpenter, rich man and so on, he will have to be absurdly omnicompetent. To function in all these ways, he or she will have to have the practical knowledge of how to cure people, cook food, manage money, make laws and so on. Lucian, a 2nd century CE satirist, claims, in his dialogue Philosophies for Sale, that the Stoic sage knows everything . So he will know how to cook, how to build, how to cure and so on – So Stoicism is a real bargain! (Philosophies for Sale 20).

The sage is the ideal virtuous person, as already noted – so aren’t the Stoics just taking over the idea of the virtuous person whom we should emulate? Sometimes we find this idea in ancient writers. We find it, for example, in Cicero, when he is setting out Stoic ethics in the person of Cato, in the third book of his work On Moral Ends. The Stoic sage, says Cato, is dignified and noble, and has a character which is constant. He is more truly a king than King Tarquin, the last king of Rome, driven out for his pride and cruelty. He is more truly rich than Marcus Crassus, a billionaire contemporary with Cicero who was notorious for his indifference to ethics in making money. (On Moral Ends III 75-76.) It looks as though the sage is brought in to make the point that we should aspire to be virtuous in what we do, rather than proud and dishonest. But this doesn’t get the sage right. The sage is, after all, the only king, and by comparison even the best king of Rome would not really be a king. He is the only rich person, and by comparison even the most honest and scrupulous billionaire would not really be rich. We are left with the full off-putting force of the Stoic theses about virtue.

Some passages about the sage suggest that the idea is that as we improve in virtue we get to be more reflective about our activities, and so we acquire expertise about things that we previously did just as a matter of routine. Money-making, for example, and household management are regularly treated by Plato and Aristotle as something beneath the intellectual level, and notice, of the sage. The Stoics, however, throw out an intellectual bridge, claiming that running a household is not just a sub-theoretical knack, but ‘a state both theoretical and practical concerning what is advantageous for the household’, and that money-making is ‘experience of acquiring money from the right sources… collecting, preserving and spending money with a view to being well off’. So ‘only the virtuous person is skilled at money-making, recognizing what the sources are from which one should make money, and when and how and up to what point.’ (Arius 11d) Here a practical skill is intellectualized as a way of showing how its correct performance might indeed be one which requires the achievement of virtue. There are other passages to the same effect. It turns out, for example, that running a symposium and managing a love affair can both be described as virtues in terms of their intellectual basis. (Arius 5b9; see 5b12 for prophecy and being a priest)

This idea of intellectualizing roles applies fairly well to roles like king, general or carpenter, where there is a skill which can be performed well or badly, and the virtuous person will perform it better, because she has greater understanding of what is important, and the values involved in the situation. There are other cases, though, where this move is not available, for example the claim that only the sage is free. The sage is free, we are told, in the true sense of freedom, for only he has achieved true internal freedom, which is freedom from the passions and from the pull of conventional motivations. Here there is no attempt to provide a bridge from the everyday notion. The same is even more obviously true of the claims that only the sage is beautiful, tall and strong, even if by ordinary standards he is ugly, small and weak. He is rich, even if in rags, a king, even if without power, and so on. (Diogenes Laertius VII 122, Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, esp. 16-25, Arius 11g,k,m)

What is going on when we are told that only the sage is free, rich and so on? The Stoic idea of ethical improvement focuses, more than some other ethical theories do, on improvement as a whole. Virtue requires more than being good in one area of your life while letting things slide in another. You have to have the right kind of understanding of value over your whole life to be virtuous. (This is one reason why it is so difficult.) The virtuous person has an understanding of what in life is valuable, with the crucial insight that the value of virtue is different from the value of everything else, and that it should always take priority.

In one sense this understanding will be the same in everyone – it is the understanding which enables the virtuous person to discern what is right in each situation and to act accordingly. But in another sense the understanding will be different for everyone, because we live in a variety of societies and cultures. Some of us have different roles from others – we are teachers, firefighters, plumbers, professors and so on. And each of us has our own individual aspects of personality. So each of us will embody and express the understanding that the virtuous person has in our own situation and context, in our own roles and in a way influenced by our own personality traits. The Stoics say that the virtuous person will do everything well, as an expert musician plays all pieces well. (Diogenes Laertius VII 125, Arius 5b10). Virtue is the same in everyone in the way that the musician’s skill is the same skill in all her performances. But each performance is of a different piece of music.

When we take this into account, we can see that for the Stoics the sage is an ideal, but can’t be thought of as a single figure to imitate or emulate. The sage is the only king, but this is no use to me if I’m not a king; I’m a doctor. But the sage is the only doctor too, so I should emulate the sage – that is try to become virtuous, as a doctor. Kings and doctors have to aim to become virtuous – to take virtue as their ideal to pursue – in their own ways of life. But they are both taking the sage as an ideal – that is, trying to be virtuous, aiming continually to improve and to live better.

So the sage doesn’t have to be the person who knows this and that and the other thing, who knows what a doctor knows and what a plumber knows and what a general knows. The sage is the ideal of having a single kind of knowledge – the understanding which the virtuous person has. But this will be embodied differently, and so take different forms, in different people, depending on their role, situation and personality. So the Stoics keep insisting that the sage is the only king, doctor and so on – it’s a way of pointing out that whether you’re a king or a doctor your ideal is to be a virtuous king, a virtuous doctor and so on.

The sage is an ideal, but a more demanding and austere ideal than other ethical theories have. Virtue is all or nothing, not something we can have degrees of. We have to achieve it as a whole, and hence over our whole life. It’s a total transformation, one which makes all virtuous people share the same understanding in their different contexts. This is another way in which the Stoics underline the demandingness of their ideal, and the distance we are from it. We tend to think that we are pretty good people because in some areas of life we are good – generous, say, while conveniently forgetting that in other areas we aren’t – we’re disloyal, say. No, say the Stoics, you are virtuous (or not) as a whole.

So: is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems? I’ve tried to show that it is not elitism, or perversity, or not caring about attracting people to Stoicism, which makes the Stoics talk about virtue the way they do. They want to alert us from the start to the fact that Stoicism is demanding. It’s a way of life, and for it to do you any good it has to be the way you live, the way you live all of your life, not something you can treat like a self-improvement course. We might think that they should have had better PR to attract people to Stoicism. But they thought that you should clearly see, right from the start, that you’re being asked to transform your whole way of life. Why pretend that it’s easy?

[1] I’m not here going to follow up the thesis that all the vices and all the virtues are equal. Discussing this would require going into more technical Stoic discussion than would be helpful here. Also, I take it that this thesis doesn’t introduce a distinct way of being off-putting from the ones I do look at.

This post is the transcript of Professor Annas’ presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of the conference can be viewed here (Dr. Annas’ presentation begins at 28:25)

Julia Annas is Regents Professor in Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She previously taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She was the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published several books and many articles on ancient philosophy, especially ancient ethics, and in recent years has also published on contemporary virtue ethics.