Stoicism, Parenthood, and Adoption by Pete Abilla

When Vice Admiral James Stockdale whispered to himself before becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”, he was unknowingly also describing parenthood. In a similar vein, a parent might say to herself “I’m leaving the world of being single and entering the world of marriage and parenthood.”

While parenthood is nothing like the suffering and depravity that one goes through as a prisoner of war, the lessons that Vice Admiral James Stockdale learned from Epictetus that helped him get through and come out better for having gone through that experience, are just as relevant to help a parent get through the ennobling and difficult experience of parenthood.

In this article, I wish to describe how I’ve applied Stoic principles to parenthood. Indeed, Stoic principles are both practical and effective and are absolutely relevant in parenthood.

My Story: Entering Parenthood with no Instruction Manual

My wife and I were married young – I at age 22 and she at 21. Shortly after our marriage, we had our first child, followed by 2 more and then we had twins after that. Getting married young while I was still an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student, had its challenges. Add children to that equation and it doubled the challenges we faced.

At the time, financial challenges seemed to be at the forefront of my mind: how do I support my young and growing family while still in school? To make ends meet, I was fortunate to have a scholarship, but I also worked 20-30 hours per week while carrying a full undergraduate and graduate school load.

But in retrospect, quality time with my wife and family was really the scarce resource. Money is fleeting and we got through just fine with the meager income I was bringing in. We were happy with what we had. But because I was busy with school and work, I should’ve been more concerned with the time I was away from my family rather than money concerns.

Seneca, in his discussion regarding the shortness of life, says:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

He’s right. In retrospect, I should’ve protected my time better and spent more of my time with the people I love.

Increase our Family Size by 80% through Adoption

After having 5 children, I thought we were done. But, my wife felt differently and, even though I denied it at the time, I knew we weren’t done either.

After some discussion, we felt a calling to add to our family through adoption. While we were deliberate and purposeful in our decision to adopt, I can’t really think of any rational reason why we did so. As anti-stoic as that seems now, we both just felt the need to serve humanity in a unique way. For us, that was to be through adoption. I guess, it’s not as anti-stoic as it seems. After all, Marcus Aurelius was fond of declaring that we were made for each other, to serve one another. In his words, “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”

So, after going through the difficult, expensive, and patience-testing process of adoption, we were very fortunate to have been able to adopt 4 more children within 3 years.  If you’ve lost count, I don’t blame you. That brings our family size to 9 kids. Our oldest is now 18 and youngest is 7.

Kids are People too, but Smaller: Expect Hard Times

Kids are developing little human beings. As such, they’re full of wonder, questions, energy, and innocence. Sometimes, they’re pretty hard to deal with. But, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Why? Because children are just a smaller version of grown-ups – and, we know through experience, adults aren’t the easiest to get along with.

Gratefully, Marcus Aurelius gave us an exercise to put us in the right frame of mind that is helpful for dealing with children as well as adults:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly . . .

Like adults, some kids are messy, impatient, unruly, disobedient, etc. In sum – being a parent is the perfect laboratory to exercise stoicism. If one can deal with difficult children with dignity and virtue, then dealing with adults will be a doable task to be sure.

Eat Your Vegetables or I’ll Make You: Do what is in Your Control

Kids need guidance, coaching, and teaching. They also have free will and sometimes they want to exercise their free will in ways that we, as parents know, are not productive or will be harmful to themselves. There’s a point where they need to learn on their own. As parents, what we can do is provide guidance and simultaneously allow them their agency. But how is this possible?

One way we’ve done this is to provide options to our children. For example, every Saturday we have family jobs where we clean the house, do chores, basic stuff. One daughter is normally really good about helping out, but this particular Saturday she was really cranky. When it was time to work, she didn’t want to do her assigned job.

I stepped back. Took a deep breath. Remembered Epictetus. Then, I offered her options. I named 4 or 5 jobs and she can pick any of them. To my surprise, she was cool with that. She chose the job she wanted to do and simultaneously she fulfilled her duty as a family member by helping around the house.

This is how we’ve applied Epictetus’ admonition to do what is in our control. In this instance, I didn’t force her to work. I simply offered her options of work, and she chose one. She exercised her agency and I did what was in my control and I didn’t use coercion or force.

In the beginning of the Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches us the following:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

My daughter felt heard and validated. She exercised her free will. And, as her parent, I was able to get her help to clean the house and teach her the principle of work and cooperation.

Marcus Aurelius believed that we, humans, were actually made to work together – to cooperate. In his words,

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

Working together in society is important, but it is even more so in a family.

Teach Resilience Over Mashed Potatoes

Parents learn from their children but parents are also teachers. Epictetus discusses the role of imitation and how we imitate those that are above us. In the Discourses, Epictetus describes a situation where the governor of Epirus favors a comedian at a play. He then uses that situation to teach an important lesson by asking the governor: “For whom have the many to imitate, but you, their superiors?” (Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 4).

What he is trying to say is that those above us have an obligation to model the right behaviors for those that are below us. This is a great lesson especially for parents and children. One way we’ve tried to apply this practice in our family is to have healthy discussions at the dinner table.

For example, during dinner I might ask:

  • What challenges did you have at school today? What did you learn? What did you do to overcome the challenge you faced?
  • What experiences did you have today where you really enjoyed what you were learning or doing? What if you were thinking of something else? Would you have enjoyed the present moment as much as you did?

Questions like these are great because they cause us all to reflect on our day and they usually generate very healthy dining table discussion.

Every moment can be a teaching moment. We need to remember to model the right behaviors for our children, knowing full well they will grow up to imitate what they saw us doing. Questions relevant for parents are:

  • Am I modeling the right behavior for my children?
  • What are my children growing towards? Do I want them to grow up to be like me? If not, what changes can I make in my behavior so they will grow up to be the people they can be proud of?

What is in our control is how we behave and what we think and do. Our children notice everything we do. If we want them to grow up to be virtuous and good human beings then, we too, must model the behavior of good, virtuous human beings.

Parenthood is a Laboratory – A Really Messy One

Children present dozens – no, hundreds . . . no, thousands – of opportunities to either get angry, impatient, upset, frustrated, or mad. Or, you can view each situation an opportunity to exercise a virtue and improve upon a character flaw, which we all have.

Epictetus gives us some guidance:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use… If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.

A few practical examples:

  • Your child throws a tantrum in public, exercise patience and gain practice reasoning with the unreasonable.
  • Your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, exercise the use of logic and present options to the child and teach them about consequences of their actions.
  • Your teenager comes home after curfew, explain to them that their actions affect others and teach them to own up to their actions by manfully accepting their consequences.

There are many more examples that life as a parent provides. . . .

Parenthood is Hard and Kids will Humble You: Enjoy Every Minute

With all the trials, tribulations, and humbling experiences that parenthood brings, with the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable. In fact, Marcus Aurelius tells us so:

Concentrate every minute… on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions… You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?

A number of years ago when my twins were two years old, my son got into the peanut butter. No, it wasn’t a small jar either – it was one of those massive Costco jars of peanut butter that was designed to feed an army.

The picture this post starts with is of my son – playing with peanut butter. I swear, I turned my back to do something and within 120 seconds, he was in the peanut butter.

Instead of being angry at the mess I’d have to clean, I made the choice to enjoy the moment, take a picture for posterity, and show gratitude that I was given the chance to experience something so funny and memorable.

We have no promise of tomorrow. Only today. So, God willing, enjoy the time that you have with your children. They are a gift and we have been called to be good, virtuous stewards. Enjoy every moment and do well.

In Seneca’s words, “[Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

Pete Abilla is a struggling stoic. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and they are the proud parents of 9 wonderful kids. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Mathematics from Brigham Young University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Computer Science from The University of Chicago. He owns a tutoring marketplace that has over 100,000 private tutors. You can find him on Twitter  and connect with him on Linkedin.

Stoic Week 2016 Report part 3 (of 4) – Impact on Well-Being by Tim LeBon

This report forms the third part of the report on Stoic Week 2016, which took place in first week of November.

Nearly two thousand participants took three established well-being questionnaires as well as the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale. [i] Well-being and the degree of Stoicism were measured before and after Stoic Week, allowing us to assess the impact of doing Stoic Week on self-reports on well-being and on levels of Stoicism.

Overall Findings 

In terms of improvements in well-being over Stoic Week, the results were remarkably similar to those of Stoic Week 2015 and 2014, with increases in well-being ranging from 10-15% in the week depending on the scale being used. This replication of previous findings gives us further increased confidence in the reliability of the findings. Table 1 below shows the overall outcome results.

Stoic Week


Stoic Week


Stoic Week 2014
No of participants 1803 2503 1953
Increase in Flourishing 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 14% 14% 16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 15% 29% 29%

Table 1: Overall Findings

Impact on Flourishing

Participants reported on average a 10% overall increase in Flourishing.[ii] Table 2 below shows the impact of Stoic which on each element of Flourishing. 

Flourishing Scale Item 2016








1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
7. I am optimistic about my future. 10 12 11 18 Optimism
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3. I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
8. People respect me. 9 7 7 5 Respected
5. I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 6 7 8 5 Competent

 Table 2: Impact on Flourishing

As in previous years, results suggest Stoicism has a particularly large positive impact on purpose and meaning (item 1), with social relationships (item 2) also showing particularly significant improvement.

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Participants reported an average 15% increase in satisfaction with life overall as measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale.[iii].

Table 3 below shows which aspects of Satisfaction with Life increased the most. As one might anticipate given Stoicism’s teachings, the theme of acceptance (question 5) showed by far the biggest increase – 24%.

Percentage change by each question 2016 % increase 2015 % increase


2014 %
2013 % increase Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 24 20 17 17 Acceptance
4. I am satisfied with my life 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
2.The conditions of my life are excellent 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 10 13 13 11 Needs met

Table 3: Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Impact on Emotions

There was a substantial increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions as reported by participants who took part in Stoic Week. There was a greater shift in negative emotions than positive emotions (14% as opposed to 10%) as measured by the SPANE.[iv] The positive emotions that showed the biggest changes in 2016 were “contented “(15%) followed by “joyful” (12%). All the negative emotions showed a significant reduction of between 14 and17%. Tables 4 and 5 below shows the impact of Stoic Week on positive and negative emotions.

Positive Emotions 2016 % change 2015 % comparison 2014 % comparison 2013 % comparison
Overall positive 10 10 11  


Contented 15 14 14 12
Joyful 12 13 13 12
Happy 7 11 9 9
Good 8 9 10 7
Pleasant 9 9 10 8
Positive 10 8 13 8

Table 4: Impact on Positive Emotions


Negative   Emotions 2016 %
2015 % comparison 2014 %
2013 %
Overall negative -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 5: Impact on Negative Emotions


Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS)

Comparisons in SABS scores before and after Stoic Week allow us to assess whether participants changed with respect to being Stoic taking part in Stoic Week. It also enables us to see in which ways they became more Stoic.

Table 6 below gives the changes in average scores for each item between the beginning and end of Stoic Week for 2016. Overall there was an 11% increase in assenting to Stoic attitudes and behaviours. [v]

Item number SABS item wording

Those items in italics have been reversed scored, so a high score still indicates a more Stoic attitude or behaviour.

% Change Average Score at start of Stoic week (completers only) Average score at end of Stoic Week
1 As long as you have the right attitude,  you can lead a good life  even in the worst of conditions, such as being tortured or being held prisoner 8 5.3 5.7
2 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing 10 5.7 6.3
3 It can sometimes be a good thing to get angry when people are really rude, selfish or inconsiderate 15 4.2 4.8
4 It’s  more important to feel good than to do good. 7 5.4 5.8
5 Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control. 7 6.0 6.5
6 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset 16 4.0 4.6
7 What is called “morally right” and “morally wrong” is in reality just a matter of personal or cultural 5 4.2 4.4
8 The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions 9 5.9 6.4
9 You should go wherever your emotions leads you 2 5.7 5.8
10 Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom 9 5.7 6.2
11 I think about my life as an ongoing project in ethical development 13 5.5 6.2
12 To flourish as a human being all you need is rationality and a good character; things like money, status, health and good luck are not essential 15 4.9 5.7
13 I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare. 8 5.5 5.9
14 The cosmos is a  single, wise, living  thing 11 3.9 4.3
15 I  try to anticipate future misfortunes and  rehearse rising above them 16 4.9 5.6
16 I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time. 6 5.4 5.7
17 If I was honest I’d have to admit that I  often do what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing 15 3.4 4.0
18 I am good at controlling my urges and impulses when that’s better for me in the long run [this item is excluded from SABS total as items 32 and 33 better measure a specifically Stoic concept of self-control] 14 4.3 4.9
19 I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life. 17 4.7 5.5
20 It is possible to control how other people behave towards you 13 4.9 5.5
21 I treat everybody fairly even those I don’t like or don’t know very well 10 5.1 5.6
22 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future 24 3.6 4.4
23 I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions. 13 5.2 5.8
24 When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent 28 4.2 5.3
25 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment 17 4.8 5.6
26 Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death 20 4.5 5.4
27 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 13 4.7 5.3
28 I care about the suffering of others and take active steps to reduce this 8 5.2 5.6
29 Happiness depends on things going well for me and my family 11 3.8 4.2
30 We have to accept that some things that matter a lot for our happiness are outside our control 17 2.9 3.4
31 When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” and then look for the option that a good and wise person would choose. 12 5.0 5.6
32 I sometimes have thoughts or urges it would be unwise to act on, but I usually realise this and do not act on them 6 5.2 5.5
33 My beliefs about what is best determine my wishes and motives 9 5.1 5.6
34 When making an important decision I try to predict the consequences of my actions and aim to balance the long-term happiness of myself and others -12 2.6 2.3
35 My good name and what other people think about me matters a lot. 20 3.5 4.2
36 I am upset when I hear of the suffering of others 6 2.5 2.6
37 There’s no overall plan to the universe. 12 3.2 3.6

Table 6: Impact of taking part in Stoic Week 2016 on Stoic attitudes and behaviours


The SABS items that showed the biggest increases are both strongly related to improved mental health.

  • Cognitive Distancing (item 24). This is important because it allows people to take a step back, not automatically assenting to unhelpful judgements.
  • Reducing rumination (item 22). Dwelling on negative thoughts for a long time is strongly associated with depression.

All SABS items moved in the expected direction with the exception item 34, an item added in SABS v3.0 which measures a utilitarian concept of practical wisdom. Perhaps the reason for this item not changing in the expected direction is that the utilitarian concept of practical wisdom incorporates some ideals to which Stoics would assent  – such as reflection and benevolence.

The 11% change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

The hypotheses that it is a change in Stoicism that mediates the change in well-being was further tested by examining the differences in well-being changes for those 100 participants who changed most according to the SABS against the 100 who changed least in SABS score. If it is the level of Stoicism that is causing the change in well-being, one would expect significantly more improvements in well-being in the group who have experienced most SABS change. This turned out to be the case. The 100 participants who experienced the most changes in SABS score and hence the biggest changes in being Stoic increased in Satisfaction with Life by 20% and in Flourishing by 13%. The 100 participants who experienced the least changes in SABS scores showed increases of only 10% and 5% in Satisfaction with Life and flourishing respectively.

The SABS analysis also allows us to see which areas of Stoicism participants were most and least Stoic in at the end of Stoic week.

By the end of Stoic Week, the items whereby people were most Stoic were:

  • Item 5: Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control.
  • Item 8: The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions

The items where participants scored lowest in SABS scores were:-

  • Item 34: When making an important decision I try to predict the consequences of my actions and aim to balance the long-term happiness of myself and others  (utilitarian practical wisdom)
  • Item 36: I am upset when I hear of the suffering of others

Both these items are non-Stoic and for many people not intuitively wrong or unethical i.e. many people would agree with them. Perhaps there is room for the Stoic Week materials to clarify exactly why these items are not in accord with Stoicism.

Completion Rate

The completion rate in 2016 was significantly lower than in previous years, being only 15% compared to 29%. The reason for this is unclear. The same technology was used as in 2016 and the materials were very similar. Whilst there were still a large enough completers for the findings to be statistically significant, it is obviously a cause for concern that this figure reduced so significantly. A further discussion about how to increase the number of people completing Stoic Week will be in part 4 of this report.


For the fourth year running, taking part in Stoic Week led to a significant increase in well-being on all measures. The results were remarkably similar to 2015. The SABS items that showed the biggest increase, cognitive distancing and reducing rumination, are both significantly related to improvements in mental health as well as well-being. Additional analysis this year, comparing changes in well-being of those who changed in Stoicism most with those who changed least, further supports the hypothesis that the change in well-being is largely attributable to participant’s being more Stoic. One cause for concern is the reduced number of participants completing the questionnaire after Stoic Week.

[i] Details of these four questionnaires are given in Appendices A-D.

[ii] See Appendix A for a description of the Flourishing Scale.

[iii] See Appendix B.

[iv] See Appendix C.

[v] See Appendix D for details of the SABS 3.0.

For a downloadable version of this report, complete with appendices, Click Here.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on His website is

What Would Stoics Say about the U.S. 2016 Election? by Temma Ehrenfeld

On the morning after the United States election this year, like many people I know, I was afraid to get out of bed.

But I had had good fortune. At “Stoicon” in New York in October, I’d picked up The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and had begun reading a quote each morning.  So, still in bed, I read the day’s entry: “All is fluid.” “The universe is change. Life is opinion.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b)

It could hardly have been more apt. Over the coming months, I came to believe that the decisive issues in this election are also the most important issues in Stoicism.

“Life is opinion” is a vague phrase, but it had an obvious painful meaning now. The morning before, people had been visibly elated on the streets around my local polling place on the Upper West Side. I overheard a conversation in which someone said, “I can’t wait until I can ignore Donald Trump.”

For decades we New Yorkers knew him as a shady tycoon with bad taste. On my morning bike ride, I pass a row of mammoth apartment buildings he owns. When people from out of town asked me about Trump, I’d report a visit to a friend who had just moved into one of those buildings. As the elevator stopped on her floor, she was saying, “Wait until you see the view,” when we all walked out and saw a large turd in the hallway.

In my circle of opinion, Trump couldn’t win. How could so many Americans hold opinions we thought unthinkable? Because “life is opinion.” My brief life, and their brief lives.  Nothing I thought certain was certain. What could I count on? “The universe is change.”

The pundits say that Americans elected Trump because he promised “change,” desirable unto itself, startling the entire world with their choice.  Human beings both crave and fear change. Donald Trump has become the epitome of that ambivalence.

The Stoics teach that change in itself is neither good nor bad—yet inevitable. It isn’t wise to choose a candidate who has never held political office for the mere sake of change, but wise to make your peace with change when it comes.

If you are excited at the prospect of a Trump administration, now is not the time to gloat for the same reason “Blue State liberals” shouldn’t despise you. The wheel will turn, and turn again.

I continue to read a Meditation every day, and the habit has served me well. On November 17, Seneca: “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” (Moral Letters, 103, 4b-5a) No, I wasn’t allowed to rail about idiots who had elected a protofascist. November 27, Marcus Aurelius: “How satisfying it is to dismiss and block out any upsetting or foreign impression, and immediately to have peace in all things.” (Meditations, 5.2). I stopped reading news about the transition that day.

Two days later came more permission to hide from the news, if only for a time: Marcus Aurelius: “Don’t lament this and don’t get agitated.” (Meditations, 7.43.) Ryan and Stephen spoke to me like dear friends: “There’s that feeling we get when something happens: It’s all over now. All is lost. What follows are complaints and pity and misery—the impotent struggle against something that’s already occurred….[what’s coming next] could be the darkness before the dawn. If we’re Stoic, there is one thing we can be sure of: whatever happens, we’re going to be OK.”

It’s as if they knew that November 2016 would be rough for much of the country. But of course, any month can be rough, as the Stoics knew especially well.

“To read or not to read” the news became a question much discussed on Facebook and elsewhere. As some of my friends were saying (and the Stoics agree), we have a duty to be engaged citizens, to love our country. I received urgent messages from people I respect asking me to make phone calls or sign petitions demanding a recount or urge electors to change their votes.

The Stoics also teach us to avoid distractions. I chose to stay out of those protests; they seemed clearly to be ways of coping. To me, the real question was “What did the voters who chose Trump mean to tell us?”

Stoicism has much to tell us on that point. Donald Trump does not do well on Stoic measures, except for one: he scorned the approval of official approval-givers. As the song goes, he did it “My Way.” We all should note the power of that stance. (To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable. I myself believe in approval from respected sources and crave it—Stoicism is an antidote).

The public discussion focused on character, a choice the Stoics would applaud. People disliked both candidates for perceived greed and dishonesty, serious faults to Stoics. However, the outcome didn’t turn on the character of the candidates. It turned, I argue, on our sources of self-respect.

As a celebrity, our President-Elect benefited from a special kind of familiarity: people trusted him because they’d seen him for years in their homes on their television screens. Hillary Clinton was also familiar, but from the despised world of politics and policy-wonks, the “insiders.”

If the pundits are correct, voters who felt that they had been treated as “losers” and “outsiders” saw a man of fame and fortune, a “winner,” who was also paradoxically an “outsider” like themselves, declaring himself on their side.

The Stoics teach resoundingly that this logic is wrong. Fame and wealth, they say, are fleeting and worthless, victories in a war not worth winning. In any case, you can’t get respect, or self-respect, by association.

In the present moment, we hear, too many Americans and British feel like “losers” because of declining income and respect for their traditional work. So they blame immigrants. The Stoics are right here, too: they insist on the value of meaningful work. If your industry is in decline, and you can’t earn a good living or you don’t have a job, life is harder. But if you are doing what you can you are not a “loser.” You are also not an “outsider.” You are inside the circle of your own judgment and bonds to your community and loved ones.

How I wish we all felt this in our bones.  Stoics don’t cuddle up to celebrities. They also don’t bathe in self-pity within bubbles.

Soon after the election, I attended a party full of people lamenting Trump’s victory. I wandered into a back room, where I found the hostess—call her Nancy–sitting alone. I’d met her only once before. She invited me to sit beside her. I asked her if she was having a good time. With a strange look on her face, she said, “Do you really want to know?”

I nodded. “I voted for Trump,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told.” I nodded.

“I’m so hopeful,” she said. “I think he’ll really make a difference.” She glowed like a woman in love.

The Stoics teach us to spread wisdom rather than seethe inside when we disagree. But they also teach us to be kind.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6: “All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way”

I knew what to do. As a journalist, I’m trained to listen to people with whom I don’t agree. I was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to do what I do well. I was also grateful to be at her party, which was warm and fun. My judgement: to listen, which would build good in the present moment and express my gratitude. I kept my face welcoming and listened to her reasons for deeply admiring Donald Trump.

I did make one, indirect, attempt to teach my wisdom: I told her that my monthly health insurance cost had dropped by $100 a month when the Affordable Care Act passed, and I was scared it would go up again. She said, “Don’t worry; he’s going to make health insurance better.”

The Stoics teach us to be careful to whom we extend our friendship. I choose to keep up friendships with people despite disagreements about politics. Should you drop those friends? Should you avoid family members whose politics offend you? If the disagreement is profound, one can find quotes in the Stoic literature to make either case. But the message is clear: first, tend your own garden.

You might think, “My Dad always thought my brothers deserved more freedom and respect than I did, so he’s proud to have as his President a man who thinks it’s OK to boast about assaulting women.” Or, “My sister can’t handle debt and she blames Mexicans for our financial troubles.”

Remember Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2: “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinions, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control…everything not of our own doing.”

As I read Epictetus, he would advise you to monitor your own attitudes about women and men and to let your Dad keep his. You might take more responsibility for your own finances, knowing that you may soon have to help out your sister. While we school ourselves not to fret over things we can’t control, we must also anticipate the worst. Know that calamity can come to you and act accordingly.

Taking a role in public life is also a Stoic value. I recently chose to write an op-ed that ran on the opinion page at the Wall Street Journal. I write for other conservative publications. I say what I think, and if my audience disagrees with me on other matters, that’s okay. Perhaps my words will get through. We all can choose how to best use our abilities to be useful during this political season.

The Stoics often suffered exile. That—and other influences, as well as all the talk of fleeing to Canada—inspired me to begin applying for my Canadian citizenship card (my mother was Canadian and my brother holds dual citizenship). I got only half-way through the process, during the election and then afterwards, began to worry that Canada would tighten up the rules. Next time, I will be more diligent. Stoic lesson learned.

I’ve pursued the application, which is taking some effort. Is this a good use of my time or a distraction? One could argue either case. I want to be prepared for a calamity when leaving my home becomes the best option. The Stoics embraced exile, a time to pursue philosophy. The truth is that I’m lucky; I can write anywhere. Writing is what I do best, though sometimes I am sick of it and want to be a dancer, a photographer—anything else. Love your fate, the Stoics say. Joy comes from practicing your virtues.

Our Stoic teachers insist that we can be happy in a world that feels unsafe. But I believe that a Trump administration will cause many other people to suffer more than they might have. It’s true I don’t know whether the total amount of suffering is bound to increase over the long run as a result of the recent turn of events, though it strongly seems that it will.

I asked Gregory Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, what he thought about the question of others’ suffering. In an email, he responded that Stoics recognize that intentionally harming others or simply taking actions that make harm foreseeable is “morally wrong.” Indeed, people who act unjustly are also damaging themselves. Many people I know intuitively agree; they think that as our President, Trump will bring about his own undoing.

“Wait and see” say my most serene confidantes, my 87-year-old father and my mother’s best friend, a 70-something economist.

What will happen? No one knows.

“If the breaking day sees someone proud,
The ending day sees them brought low.
No one should put too much trust in triumph,
No one should give up hope of trials improving.
Clotho mixes one with the other and stops
Fortune from resting, spinning every fate around.”
– Seneca, Thyestes, 613

Temma Ehrenfeld is a ghostwriter and journalist in New York drawn to psychology and philosophy. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, and Fortune and her literary work in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Chicago Literary Quarterly, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Prism International. She blogs at Psychology Today and is shopping her first novel, The Wizard of Kew Gardens.  See more of her work and reach her through her website. 

The Triteness and Hypocrisy of Marcus Aurelius: Thoughts on Mary Beard, SPQR and Stoicism by Kevin Kennedy

Like many other members of the new Stoicism movement, I have a great interest in ancient Roman history. The Roman Empire is not only a fascinating subject in its own right, but knowledge of it also can help us gain a more profound understanding of Stoic philosophy. One of the world’s foremost experts on Roman history today is Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge university. In her books and her BBC documentaries, Beard presents the complexities of ancient Roman society in a way that is not only educational but also entertaining. So it was with tremendous joy that I recently found myself able to sit down with her latest work, a general history of Rome titled SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus:  “The Senate and the People of Rome”).

To be sure, I began reading SPQR  with a few caveats in mind. I knew that this was going to be a book that focused more on the politics, society, economy and everyday life in Rome than on its schools of philosophy, Moreover, I was aware that Beard was no fan of Stoicism. Whenever I see her name, I still have to think about a review she wrote several years ago of three biographies of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How Stoical was Seneca?” The reviewed authors all viewed Seneca as a hypocrite and Beard agreed with them. For her, Seneca only affected a virtuous life to divert attention from his involvement with the tyrant Nero and from his amassment of enormous wealth by dubious means.

Beard even mocked Seneca’s suicide. (Nero believed Seneca was part of a conspiracy against him and commanded that he kill himself.) After failing to draw enough blood by slashing his veins (“he was so old and emaciated the blood hardly escaped”), Seneca took hemlock, offering a libation to Jupiter. This was, so Beard, an obvious attempt to emulate Socrates’ legendary death. But the poison also failed to achieve the desired effect, so Seneca ordered his servants to bring him into a hot bath, where he suffocated in the steam. Beard saw something comical in all this. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death, she writes, he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. Seneca was for Beard a poor exemplar of Stoic philosophy, which she seemed to dislike as much as she disliked him:

Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.

And yet, with all this in mind, I was still not prepared for what I discovered in SPQR:

There are occasional examples of outstanding imperial virtue too. The philosophical Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, cliché as much of it is (‘Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you’) still finds many admirers, buyers and advocates today, from self-help gurus to former US president Bill Clinton.

In truth, it is not necessary for a scholar to sympathize with Stoicism in order to write a first-rate history of ancient Rome (which is what SPQR is). What a reader can expect, however, is that a historian has some understanding of Stoicism before comparing it to contemporary self-help literature or former American presidents with obvious self-control issues. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain trite observations which are repeated over and over?  Well duh! The repetition of philosophical principles was necessary, the Stoics taught, because we tend to keep forgetting them.

As those of you reading this now know, my  initial response to Beard’s comment was a decidedly non-Stoic one. I felt a twinge of anger and responded in a mocking tone. Had I remembered my Stoic principles, however, I would have realized that it was my own self who had decided that Mary Beard had somehow offended me and all modern-day Stoics. I also would have considered how to respond in a more mature manner. Now that I have taken a moment to regain my composure (cognitive distancing: another trite Stoic principle), I will attempt  to do just that.

When Marcus Aurelius was writing what came to be known as his Meditations or “Thoughts”, he was not composing a philosophical treatise intended for academic discussion; instead he was keeping a private journal intended to help him live a more virtuous life. This was (and remains) common Stoic practice. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, stressed the importance of this exercise to his students: Let these things be ready at hand, night and day. These things write, these things read: of these things talk both to yourself and to others. (Discourses, 3:24). The purpose of this practice is described well by the writer Jules Evans. As he put is, Stoics keep journals full practiced a form of “autosuggestion”:

The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around – that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”. We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.

Another passage of SPQR which might irritate modern-day Stoic readers comes when Beard discusses Marcus Aurelius’ military exploits:

And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus would be less admiring if they reflected on the the brutality of the suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up the commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.

First, as a scholar of German history, I wince every time other historians use the term “the Germans” in this anachronistic way. “The Germans,” as a distinct ethnic-cultural nation, did not emerge until the Middle Ages, at the earliest.  “Germanic” would be more accurate for the ancient world. But I digress. More important is Beard’s suggestion that, since Marcus Aurelius engaged in brutal warfare, he violated his Stoic principles and was therefore, like Seneca, some kind of a hypocrite.

Marcus Aurelius was not always a mild-mannered philosopher, but an emperor and a general who also committed acts of violence that would make us blanch today? If I may be allowed one more un-stoical response: Another shocker! Anyone who has devoted any amount of serious study to the history ancient Rome knows this. Marcus Aurelius was responsible for things that today would get him sent to the International Court of Criminal Justice at the Hague. But Marcus Aurelius did not reign in the twenty-first century. He was a man of his time, and the ancient world was a very violent place.

In contrast to many other Roman emperors, however, Marcus never prosecuted wars of conquest. His wars were purely defensive — and necessary. Several times in the course of his reign, Germanic tribes invaded the Roman empire, pillaging and murdering local populaces, and setting off a wave of panic that reached the city of Rome itself. As a Stoic, he knew that the gods or the fates have entrusted each one of us with certain duties and responsibilities which we must carry out as best we can. As emperor, it was Marcus’ chief duty to protect the empire. He  discharged his duty, trying to maintain his humanity as far as possible.

While it is true that  his armies repelled the invaders with great brutality, the ancient accounts report that Marcus was also magnanimous to the Germanic tribes once they had been subdued. It is also important to remember that, despite certain similarities, Stoics are not Christians. Being a Stoic does not mean that one has to be a pacifist as well. (Christians themselves, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have also historically honored Christ’s pleas for love, peace and forgiveness more in the breach than in the observance.) Perhaps this is why Stoicism has traditionally found a receptive audience within the military. In any case, by guiding his troops into battle, Marcus was honoring his Stoic principles, not betraying them.

If I may conclude on another digression: While Mary Beard herself may be no admirer of Stoicism and the Stoics, she has, in the past few years, exhibited some public behavior which Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have found commendable. In 2013 Internet trolls reacted to some of Beard’s television appearances with vile, obscene, misogynist comments on Twitter. Beard responded by publicly naming and shaming them. Most remarkably, however, she later forgave her trolls and even befriended some of them. As she said, people shouldn’t be punished forever for solitary acts of stupidity: In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’. Mary Beard’s dignified and generous response to her tormentors is worthy of a philosopher. Perhaps, somewhere along the way of her decades spent studying ancient Rome, she acquired some Stoic habits of mind after all.

And I would highly recommend all fellow modern Stoics to buy a copy of SPQR. Not to learn about the ancient Roman Stoics, but to discover the fascinating world in which they lived.

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