What Does “In Accordance With Nature” Mean? by Greg Sadler

One guiding ideal for Stoics is living “in accordance with nature”. But what does this phrase really mean? To judge by the many questions and comments one sees in Stoicism-oriented social media, blogs and websites, this doctrine seems to be a perennial source of confusion. I get asked about it frequently when I teach online classes, lead seminars, give talks, or even post lecture videos.

When you first hear or read it, “in accordance with nature” sounds like a helpful criterion we could use to guide and measure our choices, beliefs, reasonings, desires, and actions. But then confusions and worries arise. For, without some clear conception in mind of what “nature” and “in accordance with” mean, it appears we might be just playing around with generalities, and thereby fooling ourselves with words that lack any definite meaning but do appeal to us on some merely emotional level. And that – if it really is the case – should be very troubling to a Stoic (pun intended)!

Given the uncertainties and confusions raised by this issue, it is quite natural to ask: Is there a simple and straightforward answer to this question – What does “in accordance with nature” mean? Well, I have some good news and some bad news for you.

The good news is that if it is a simple answer you’re looking for, you’re in luck! For there isn’t just one, but a whole slew of answers meeting that criterion. Then there’s the bad news: they all tend to be more or less wrong. Simple answers about complex matters abound, since there are multiple ways to go wrong through oversimplification.

There is, fortunately, a set of consistent answers contained within classic literature of (or about) Stoic philosophy. Unfortunately for us in the present, a significant portion of Stoic writings are lost (as is the case with many of the schools and thinkers of antiquity). Perhaps one of the greatest loss in this respect is the work that Zeno reportedly wrote, titled “On Life According To Nature” (Peri to kata phuisin biou). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that book in our hands?  Nevertheless, the texts that we do still possess provide a fairly clear, though necessarily complex, account of this key Stoic concept and doctrine.

Which texts should we turn to, if our goal is to better understand what “in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics? In my view, we should start with several works not authored by Stoics themselves, but that do provide us with invaluable information about key doctrines (and sometimes disagreements) of the Early and Middle Stoics. The first of these sources is Diogenes Laertes’ Lives of the Philosophers, the 7th book of which is devoted entirely to the Stoic school.  Another key source is the eclectic philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  To understand Stoic thought on this matter, it is particularly helpful to look at his On The Ends and On Duties.

Given the recurrently expressed worries about this key idea, I thought it might be useful to write a short piece here setting out and explaining classic Stoic teachings on the topic. The idea was to provide a resource those expressing confusions about the matter might be referred to – along with Eric Scott’s and Michel Daw’s earlier (and shorter) pieces on the same subject – not a complete answer on the matter, but at least enough to clear up a few misunderstandings and give readers a sense of where they might look for fuller discussions of the issue.

What Do We Mean By “Nature”?

One completely understandable – and avoidable – source generating confusions on the parts of modern readers is reading decidedly non-Stoic conceptions of “nature” into passages where the Stoics talk about being, living, or acting in accordance with nature. The result of this is typically that other key doctrines of the Stoics then appear out of harmony with, or even contradictory to “living in accordance with nature” interpreted along those lines. A great example of this is provided by a frequently-posted criticism made by Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil:

You desire to live “according to Nature”? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power – how could you live in accordance with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavoring to be different? And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”- how could you do differently?

Nietzsche goes on to argue that the Stoics have imposed their own viewpoint of “Nature ‘according to the Stoa,’” upon the totality of nature, and that Stoicism, as a form of “self-tyranny,” attempts to extend this domination to all the rest of nature, of which the Stoic is merely a part. What it comes down to, however, is that Nietzsche has worked out a very different conception of nature than that of the Stoics, and essentially faults them for relying upon their conception, rather than the one he prefers. This difference applies not only to “nature” in the sense of the entire cosmos and its processes, but also to “nature” as living things, and particularly to “nature” as human nature.

Setting aside Nietzsche as a particular example of, there is a broader problem. We do live in an era in which the sciences have made significant leaps forward, and within a culture in which some small measure of scientific literacy can be assumed on the part of the general public. But it is also safe to say that there are differing conceptions of “nature” floating around in our broader culture.  Understandably enough, when newcomers to Stoicism try to make sense of “living in accordance with nature,” some read in one or another conception of “nature” adopted either from the sciences – or more often from popular accounts of the sciences and science journalism – or from alternative sources.

The Stoics themselves did articulate an account of nature, understood as the totality of the cosmos, its differing degrees of being, its processes, and so on. We lack full access to that account, of course, since a good portion of Stoic literature has been lost, but we do at least have some outlines, with certain portions of that more or less filled in. What we can reconstruct is an account that is not entirely at odds with those set out by contemporary sciences. In fact, where through modern science we now possess better explanations of matters such as the nature of the universe, or what individual things are and how they causally interact, a Stoic might well want to consider how the philosophical doctrine might be harmonized with more modern conceptions of “nature”.

There do remain, admittedly, some doctrines central to classical Stoicism that will inevitably present significant challenges for the modern Stoic, for instance the conception of the cosmos itself as the divine, or the strong conception of providence for which Stoics argued against rival schools in antiquity. Those tensions, or problems, are very interesting and worth discussion, but I pass over them here.

A more serious conflict – one that that is highly relevant here – arises when we consider what would be in accordance with nature not just as referring to the totality of the cosmos, but more specifically in terms of our rational, i.e. distinctively human nature. According to Diogenes Laertes, some disagreement occurred in the early Stoa precisely over this matter:

By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both the common nature of the universe and the specific nature of human being, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the part [of the universe]. (7.89)

Chrysippus’ approach prevailed, as becomes apparent when examining later discussions of this key Stoic idea. In this domain not just of nature itself, but specifically human nature, clarity about what understanding of (or assumptions about) “nature” we have in mind becomes imperative. We need to be particularly on our guard towards uncritically substituting conceptions of “nature” drawn from non-Stoic sources when we attempt to think out what “in accordance with nature” means. Instead, we ought to look to the Stoic sources we do possess, and elaborate the conception of nature (particularly human nature) along those lines.

Stoics on Human Nature in Diogenes Laertes

One discussion that helps significantly toward understanding the “nature” Stoics advocate living in accordance with, begins by generalizing about all animal life:

An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self-preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends. (7.85)

Being “endeared to itself” translates the Greek term oikeiouses, a cognate of which is the later oikeiosis, discussed at length by Hierocles in his Elements of Ethics, a concept many modern Stoics have become familiar with. Diogenes goes on to note that the Stoics apply this feature of self-preservation still more widely, extending it to all living things.

And nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. (7.86)

Notice the turn the discussion now takes:

But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. (7.86)

Nature, in one sense of the term – the totality of things that are – gives to these different orders of living things varied manners of preserving their existence, and indeed of growth, enjoyment, and flourishing.   The higher order does not lack what the lower order possesses, but adds to it. Human beings and the other animals possess what plants have, and add on impulse to it. Human beings also have impulse like other animals, but add the rational faculty on to that. This will have very important implications for what “in accordance with nature” means specifically for human beings.

Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end “life in agreement with nature,” which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. (7.87)

Already here, we see the interconnection, or even equivalence, between two central features of Stoic moral theory: living in accordance with nature, on the one hand, and the cultivation and practice of the virtues, on the other. This was a consistent doctrine, and Diogenes points out Cleanthes and Posidonius as having taught it. Chrysippus also emphasizes another side to this:

[L]iving virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature. . . . for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things. . . . And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life, when all actions promote the harmony of the spirit dwelling in the individual man with the will of him who orders the universe. (7.87-88)

Understood in this way, “living in accordance with nature” does not mean merely maintaining one’s existence through following impulse. Nor does it mean merely adapting oneself to the course of life, to things that happen, to the circumstances one finds oneself in. It means participating in our small portion, or role, within the totality of the universe, and doing so in a distinctively human way. That is what is in accordance with our specific nature. Rationality is essential to that nature. The capacity for virtue is too, and so is the possibility of recognizing and voluntarily following that common law or right reason.

Several other later Stoics added to Chrysippus’ explanation, as Laertes tells us. His successor as scholarch, Diogenes of Babylon “expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is in accordance with nature.” Archedemus of Tarsus extends this to “the performance of all befitting actions.”  Notice that in these two formulas, what we see is an emphasis on reasoning out more practically – in particular cases as well as in general – what “in accordance with nature” means. Diogenes emphasizes the need to competently decide (and act upon), upon one out of a range of possible things in accordance with nature, that is, which one to prudently select. Archedemus emphasizes the whole domain of actual duties (in Greek, kathekonta, in Latin, officia) as part and parcel of living in accordance with nature.

Human Nature In Cicero’s Presentations of Stoicism

Although (as noted earlier) not himself a member of the Stoic school, Cicero’s works provide us very useful presentations of Stoic doctrines. On this matter in particular, a good bit of what he has to tell us is already there in Diogenes’ Laertes. That seeming redundancy is not entirely without value, since it confirms those points as long-established, and perhaps even commonplace, Stoic understandings of “in accordance with nature”. But on some points, Cicero also adds some additional depth to the picture outlined so far. 

On The Ends contains passages specifically focused on the issue of what is in accordance with nature. In book 3 of this work (which is set up as a series of dialogues), Cicero places the presentation of Stoic teachings into the mouth of his fellow philosopher and statesman (and later ally in the civil wars), Cato the Younger, who proposes that he “expound. . . the whole system of Zeno and the Stoics.” (3.4. 14) As a side-note, it should be pointed out that in book 4, Cicero actually claims that the notion of “living in accordance with nature” is not a feature unique to the Stoic school of philosophy. More specifically, he maintains that Zeno took over this notion from one of his teachers, the Academic Platonist Polemo. (4.6.15)

In book 3, Cicero clarifies the relationships between human nature, rationality, intrinsic moral value, duty, and choice. What is itself in accordance with nature, or are productive of those things in accordance with nature, possesses genuine moral value, and is worth choosing.   This leads to a duty of “retain[ing] those things which are in accordance with nature, and to repel those that are contrary.” This in its turn involves choice (selectio) on the person’s part along those lines, i.e. following that basic duty. And then, with time, that choice develops into something reliable (perpetua), and eventually attains the state of being entirely in agreement with nature. There is a process of development for the human being, by which he or she can more fully come into agreement with nature. That process of development both involves and refines the distinctively human faculties of reason and of choice.

He emphasizes another key aspect to the Stoic doctrine:

The human being’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he or she has attained to understanding, or rather to conscious intelligence. . . and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that should govern conduct, he then esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that in this order resides the main good for human beings. . . (3.6. 21)

In the human being developing into a fuller agreement with nature, the basis from which one starts is just that, a starting point. There is a rational process that leads from the basic impulse for self-preservation into rationality and sociability.

A later discussion reaffirms this. When considering duties, or “appropriate actions” (officia), one example that he says both the wise and the foolish will choose, is that of self-preservation, since this is in accordance with nature (secundum naturam, 3.18.59). But, for a rational person, there may be occasions when it becomes appropriate to for that person to depart from life. It depends, Cicero tells us, on where the “preponderance of things in accordance with nature” (in quo enim plura sunt quae secundum naturam sunt) happens to fall in the specific case. A bit later, after noting that happiness (beate vivere) means “living in accordance with nature” (convenienter naturae vivere), he points out that this involves “grasping the right occasion” (opportunatis esse, 3.18.61)

In On Duties, Cicero elaborates upon what nature provides us with as human beings, that is, what distinctively human nature we possess:

Nature likewise by the power of reason associates human being with human being in the common bonds of speech and life; she implants in him above all, I may say a strangely tender love for his offspring; she also prompts human beings to meet in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things to minister to his comfort and wants – and not only for himself alone, but for his wife and children and for the others whom he holds dear and four whom he ought to provide. (1. 4.12)

This is particularly interesting, because not only does it asserts that sociability, affection, and association with other human beings are integral to rational human nature, but that this very tendency towards associating with others requires that rationality be effectively exercised. This in turn means that fully realizing our human nature requires that we develop and exercise the virtue of prudence or wisdom.

Cicero also points out several other sides to the natural human inclination towards acquiring wisdom, towards becoming more rational.

Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to human being. . . . We are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem is desired to know the secrets are wonders of creation is indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a human being’s nature. (1. 4.13)

And yet another:

To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hunger, as it were for independence, So that a mind while molded by nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. (1. 4.13)

In going on and discussing the virtue and the duties associated with justice, Cicero also tells us:

As the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for human use; and as human beings too, are born for the sake of human beings, that they maybe able mutually to help one another; in this direction we are to follow nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, human being to human being. (1.7.22)

Similar references to nature and reason in the discussion of the other cardinal virtues, courage and temperance (which I skip over here), further fill out this picture of what fully developed human nature – and thus living in accordance with nature – involves and requires of the human being.

On Duties also contains a relevant distinction and discussion of “four characters” (personae), each individual possesses by virtue of their human being. One of these is a universal character bestowed upon all of us by nature:

Arising from the fact of her being all alike and endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morals of the impropriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. (1.30.107)

The second is a character that is assigned to individuals as such. This assigns us our particular characteristics, “the bent of our own particular nature” (1.31.110), which might be better or worse, in some respects, than those of other persons. Cicero stresses that we cannot simply copy the traits of others and suppress those that express our own proclivities. But we must also find ways to adapt our own individual character to the greater whole.

There are two other “characters” as well. The third is imposed by “chance or circumstance” upon particular persons. Cicero cites as examples: “regal powers and military commands, nobility of birth and political office, wealth and influence, and their opposites.” In our own day, we might think of what countries and cultures we are born into or emigrate to, what organizations or institutions we are involved in, what opportunities we are afforded, and the like. The fourth depends upon our own deliberate choice (judicio nostro), that is, what we make of all of the rest of our circumstances and nature by our own will or choice (nostrae voluntatae).

How does this doctrine of the four characters impact the ideal of living “in accordance with nature”? The first character expresses a considerable amount of what “living in accordance with nature” would look like for all human beings. But there is also what is distinctive to us as individual persons, and we ought to cultivate that “nature” and live in accordance with it as well, provided of course that it really is “proper to us and not vicious,” or put in another way, “not against universal human nature” (1.33.110).

The fourth is particularly interesting, since it bears upon what we actually choose to do with and from those other three characters. It is where human agency not only expresses human nature but also deliberately shapes our own selves in relation to it. Whether or not we live in accordance with nature or not is something up to us. Even how we live “in accordance with nature” is up to us as well. Cicero points out a person’s choice about which virtues to excel in as one example of what lies within  this fourth character’s scope.

A Few Conclusions

After examining several of these interesting discussions of classical Stoic doctrine on “living in accordance with nature” and about specifically human nature, found in Diogenes Laertes and Cicero, what clear conclusions can we set out on the matter? Here are a few:

First, the Stoic ideal of “living in accordance with nature” does involve adapting oneself to “nature” in the sense of the cosmos, of which any given person is merely one part of a much greater whole. Just as important, however, is realizing distinctively human, rational nature in oneself.

Second, as living beings, humans are driven by the same natural impulse for self-preservation as are other non-rational living beings. Our rationality may often be used in the service of this impulse, but that is not its only function. Integral to that rationality, as it develops, is a capacity and desire for living together harmoniously with other people. Rational human nature involves sociability.

Third, human rationality affords us the capacity to be to some extent self-determining. We can rationally reshape what it is that nature has bestowed upon us, for instance our impulses.   We not only have capacities for responding to and modifying our natural environment, but also for working upon our own selves, as well as for taking part in complex human communities.

Fourth, living in accordance with nature involves the cultivation of the virtues – specifically prudence, justice, courage, and temperance – since virtue is the end to which nature orients rational beings. Doing so follows out and refines desires and impulses that we possess as human beings, for example for understanding truth, or for realizing justice.

Fifth, recognizing and fulfilling our duties is a main way in which we live in accordance with nature. This is not just a matter of blind or mechanical obedience to demands imposed upon us from outside, but rather ways in which we apply our human rationality to ourselves, others, and the situations in which we live together.

As I mentioned earlier, this short piece is not meant to provide a fully comprehensive account of what “living in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics. Instead, the goal was to flesh out that notion enough so that those who find it vague, confusing, or vacuous might have something more substantive to wrap their heads around. Here I have just drawn upon Diogenes Laertes and Cicero, but there is a good bit more said on the topic in the works of the Late Stoics that we fortunately still possess. My intention is to write a follow-up piece (later this year) focused on passages further developing this notion of “according to nature” in Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and especially in the works of Epictetus.

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

Life After Pain Interviews – Irvine, Robertson, and Sadler

The website Life After Pain recently interviewed three of the members of the Modern Stoicism project – William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and Greg Sadler – on what resources and insights Stoic philosophy and practices offer in dealing with chronic pain.

You can find each of the interviews, carried out by Naomi Kuttner – in transcript and mp3 podcast form – by following these links:

Learn How to Deal with Negative Emotions – Professor William B Irvine

Coping With Pain Using the Stoic Philosophy – Donald Robertson

Using Stoic Principles in Everyday Life – Gregory  Sadler

The Life Without Pain website was created by Dr. Jonathan Kuttner, after his recovery from a hang-gliding accident spurred a very interest on his part in treatment of chronic muscle and joint pain.  Understanding pain – and all that goes with it – is key to his approach.

Stoic philosophy and practices provide a number of resources, exercises, and an over-all approach that can be helpful for people suffering from chronic pain.  Give a listen to these three interviews, and you’ll hear more than two-and-a-half hours of Irvine, Robertson, and Sadler unpacking insights from Stoicism and applying them to dealing with pain (and a number of other connected issues – beliefs, emotions, relationships, decisions, and lifestyles).

Musonius Rufus’ Nurturing Stoic Family or Plato’s Guardian Automatons? by Leah Goldrick

In Book V of The Republic, Plato describes a commonwealth devoid of biological nurturing. Mothers and fathers of the philosophical Guardian class are not allowed to be married and are excluded from the raising of their own children, who are instead entrusted to wet nurses and substitute caregivers at the whim of the Rulers.

We have to wonder if such an arrangement as Plato describes would actually undermine the structure of the commonwealth by producing a race of maladjusted automatons rather than philosophical Guardians for which it was designed. In removing a loving marriage bond, warm nurturing from a consistent caregiver and philosophical education within the nexus of the family, Plato effectively eliminates the primary basis from which virtue, intelligence and sociability develop.

In stark contrast to the cold, bureaucratic child rearing described in Plato’s Republic, the Stoic Musonius Rufus’ envisioned a different ideal, one consisting of warm nurturing along with modeling of virtuous behavior in the context of a Stoic marriage and family. Musonius seems to have gotten things right in light of much of the modern scholarship on infant attachment, empathy, and brain development. Ironically, it is Musonius’ type of care which is more likely to create good, sociable, reasonable people – Plato’s ideal for his Guardians – to begin with.

Let’s consider Plato’s method of caring for young children first:

The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be… that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure.

They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognize her own child; and other wet-nurses may be engaged if more are required. Care will also be taken that the process of sucking shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand over all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.[1]

Plato’s ideal of infant care, where babies are raised mostly by a rotating stream of surrogate wet-nurses and state-appointed caregivers without parental love, runs contrary to human evolutionary biology and as such might have undesirable effects. While I won’t argue that we are strict slaves to our biology, there is a general scientific consensus as to the type of early childhood nurturing and environment which promotes brain development and produces empathetic individuals. It is not consistent with Plato’s approach. Rotating bureaucratic caregivers, lack of consistent moral role models and the specter of an environment which is not emotionally responsive (or at least not as nurturing as care provided by people who have a loving interest in their own progeny) is particularly worrisome.

Loving relationships are essential to brain development in the early years, and these interactions have consequences for future emotional and physical health. Babies get distressed when caregivers are emotionally unresponsive.[2] Having a stream of changing caregivers who are unrelated to the child is more likely to result in care that is emotionally unresponsive.

Rotating caregivers, even if warm, are less likely to read the cues appropriately or to know what the babies likes and dislikes are, causing the babies stress levels to rise, likely to a state of near permanent anxiety in absence of a permanent attachment figure. The motherless babies in The Republic are not allowed the one comfort of suckling too long at the breast! The family-less arrangement as described in The Republic also ostensibly lacks the necessary dimension of moral role-modeling that the family traditionally provides children.

Another problem is that Plato’s ideal proceeds from the assumption that taking care of babies and young children is an inconvenience to be put aside in favor of more important matters. Plato clearly feels that the affairs of young children should be relegated to the ontological basement in order of importance. However, in designating parenting as an activity unimportant enough to be mostly foisted off on wet nurses and similar people of lesser social status than the Guardian class, Plato presupposes that the commonwealth can actually sustain itself in the absence of biological nurturing and parental modeling of virtue.

Plato errs in viewing the care of young children as an unimportant activity which hinders or detracts from philosophy and the good of the state, rather than one which is good and philosophical in and of itself. Raising virtuous and empathetic children is a most important matter, maybe even the most important philosophical matter, because it is the cornerstone on which a good society is built to begin with. The one is an antecedent cause necessary for the other.

By contrast, Musonius Rufus’ Stoic family described in his Lectures and Sayings, stands in stark contrast to the cold, bureaucratic child rearing described in The Republic. Both Plato and Musonius were looking to develop empathetic, virtuous people, but only Musonius recognized that the family is the place where concern for others is originally learned. (According to the Stoic Hierocles, oikeoisis, or empathy, originally begins in the family and progresses outward as a person matures until it applies to everyone in the cosmopolis.)[3]

Musonius begins by describing the ideal Stoic marriage as a partnership of mutual care which allows the spouses to grow in virtue. Such a loving marriage is (implicitly) more likely to produce good, empathetic children when prosoche and virtue are mirrored by the parents. He states:

When this mutual care is complete and those who live together provide it to each other completely, each competes to surpass the other in giving such care. Such a marriage is admirable and deserves emulation; such a partnership is beautiful.[4]

Musonius goes on to argue that marriage and the raising of children are not a handicap in the pursuit of philosophy and is in accord with nature, as is raising many children. A Stoic mother and father will naturally cohabitate (as opposed to the parents in The Republic, who are prevented from doing so), and being philosophical, they will model virtue for their children:

Now the philosopher is indeed the teacher and leader of men in all the things which are appropriate for men according to nature, and marriage, if anything, is manifestly in accord with nature. For, to what other purpose did the creator of mankind first divide our human race into two sexes, male and female, then implant in each a strong desire for association and union with the other, instilling in both a powerful longing each for the other, the male for the female and the female for the male? Is it not then plain that he wished the two to be united and live together, and by their joint efforts to devise a way of life in common, and to produce and rear children together, so that the race might never die?[5]

The Greek Stoics may not have universally sanctioned marriage and children. Zeno in particular held views that were somewhat embarrassing to later Roman Stoics, including the proposal that women should be held in common. The notion that a Stoic sage should marry and have children appears to have triumphed by the time of Cicero, however. Musonius, writing slightly after Cicero in the early Imperial period, held that both marriage and having many children were natural duties for a sage. Musonius espouses the idea that children can facilitate an individual’s moral development via an exchange of virtue and mutual appreciation.[6] He states:

[T]hat raising many children is an honorable and profitable thing one may gather from the fact that a man who has many children is honored in the city, that he has the respect of his neighbors, that he has more influence than his equals if they are not equally blessed with children. I need not argue that a man with many friends is more powerful than one who has no friends, and so a man who has many children is more powerful than one without any or with only a few children, or rather much more so, since a son is closer than a friend. One may remark what a fine sight it is to see a man or woman surrounded by their children. Surely one could not witness a procession arrayed in honor of the gods so beautiful nor a choral dance performed in order at a religious celebration so well worth seeing as a chorus of children forming a guard of honor for their father or mother in the city of their birth, leading their parents by the hand or dutifully caring for them in some other way. What is more beautiful than this sight? What is more enviable than these parents, especially if they are good people? For whom would one more gladly join in praying for blessings from the gods, or whom would one be more willing to assist in need?[7]

Furthermore, Musonius envisioned a Stoic mother as an energetic, nurturing woman well versed in philosophy. This Stoic mother’s behavior is much more consistent with what we are wired for in terms of evolutionary biology than the caregivers described in The Republic:

Who better than she would love her children more than life itself? What woman would be more just than such a one?.. For in fact she has schooled herself to be high-minded and to  think of death not as an evil and life not as a good, and likewise not to shun hardship and never for a moment to seek ease and indolence. So it is that such a woman is likely to be energetic, strong to endure pain, prepared to nourish her children at her own breast, and to serve her husband with her own hands, and willing to do things which some would consider no better than slaves’ work. Would not such a woman be a great help to the man who married her, an ornament to her relatives, and a good example for all who know her?  [8]

For Plato (and for Roman women of Musonius’ class) obligations such as breastfeeding and getting up at night to tend to children were considered hardships rather than as virtue enhancing activities. But there is nothing virtuous or philosophical about “not getting up at night,” from the Stoic perspective. Love of work is an attribute of andreia, usually translated as “courage” but which might also be thought of as “determination.” The work of raising children doesn’t end when the sun sets, and a Stoic mother is not soft and helpless when confronted with the important work of child rearing. She is a virtuous, loving role model for her children.

Upon examination, one would imagine that a nurturing Stoic family as we find it described in Musonius’ fragments is vastly more likely to produce the ideal which Plato was trying to achieve in The Republic – a community of people who possess virtue, reason and concern for others.



  1. Plato (1908). The Republic. London: MacMillan. Book V, 168.

  2. Dewar, G. (2015). Stress in babies: An evidence-based guide to keeping babies calm and healthy. Retrieved March 20,     2017, from http://www.parentingscience.com/stress-in-babies.html

  3. Inwood, B. (2007). Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters. Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press. 170.

  4. King, C. (2011). Musonius Rufus Lectures and Sayings. Create Space. Lecture 13.

  5. Lecture 14.

6. Gloyn, E. (2011). The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. Rutgers University. https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/33668/ 125-6.

  1. Lecture 15.

  2. C. (1947). Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

Stoicon Workshop: Negative Visualisation And The Possibility of a President Trump by Tim LeBon


Negative Visualisation is “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit” according to William Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus all recommend and practised Negative Visualisation[1]. You too can practice it if you wish by routinely imagining adversities that may befall you and then rehearsing the ways in which Stoicism can help you respond to these events wisely and virtuously. These adversities can range from encountering irritating people at the baths (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2) to, controversially, the death of your own child (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 3) and your own death (Seneca, On Earthquakes).

There are two significant advantages to this seemingly counterintuitive practice. Firstly you will be less shocked if and when bad things happen. As Seneca put it – “Whatever has long been anticipated comes as a lighter blow” (Letters 78)

Equally, you are more likely to respond wisely if have anticipated a problem – like an actor rehearsing their lines before a performance. Again Seneca puts it eloquently when he writes

“Everyone approaches a danger with more courage if he has prepared in advance how to confront it. Anyone can endure difficulties better if he has previously practised how to deal with them.” Seneca Letters III 225

In this article I will describe a workshop I gave at the New York Stoicon in October 2016, where we practised a Negative Visualisation of Donald Trump becoming the next President of the United States. Its interest lies partly in this political context and also in the format. To my knowledge this is the first recorded instance of performing Negative Visualisation in a group. I will describe a format for group Negative Visualisation, then summarise what happened at the New York workshop, and conclude with suggestions for future developments.

Stoic Remedies for Troubled Times

“2016 has been the worst year in my political life”, a friend commented – and that was before the US Presidential election. He was not alone. After the unexpected vote for Brexit in the UK referendum on Europe on June 23rd, 2016, many felt a gamut of difficult emotions including anxiety, sadness, embarrassment and anger. It was easy enough to see parallels between Brexit and Trump. In the UK and US alike, many people felt let down by mainstream politicians and threatened by immigration, globalisation and technological change. For these people, a return to the nationalism and nostalgia offered by Brexit and Trump was very appealing. For liberal cosmopolitans like my friend and I, it was extremely worrisome.

In early 2016 my Google search history included several occurrences of “Odds of both Brexit and Trump.” The chances were considered small by those whose job it was to know about such things – about one in twenty. I felt temporarily reassured. However seeking reassurance and hoping for the best are decidedly un-Stoic and unwise strategies. Sure enough, they did nothing to prepare me for the shock of Brexit. When I eventually turned to Stoic Remedies for Brexit instead, they helped. But what would enable us all to prepare for the possibility that Trump might become President?

A Case Study: Visualising Trump as President

Could Negative Visualisation help? The Stoicon conference in New York in October 2016, the month before the Presidential election, offered the chance to find out. The challenge was to adapt Negative Visualisation so it could be effective in a group setting likely to include some novice Stoics and conceivably some Trump supporters.. Here is the plan I created for a five step version of Negative Visualisation. I reproduce it in some detail below to enable readers to adapt it, should they so wish, to facilitate their own group negative visualisations on an adversity of their choice.

Step 1: Preliminaries: Clarify the adversity to be considered in this workshop and give people the chance to leave should they not wish to do a negative visualisation about this. Begin with a brief group negative visualisation practice on a relatively minor adversity, such as breaking your phone or tablet.

Step 2: Visualising disaster: With eyes closed, vividly imagine that the feared event is happening. You hear the TV presenter announce “Hillary has conceded”. You see the newspaper headline “Trump President!” alongside a picture of a triumphant Donald Trump. Notice the thoughts and feelings that pop into your mind as you imagine that this is really happening. At this stage, do not try to apply Stoic principles. Observe what you feel like doing. Spend two or three minutes on this. Then open your eyes and make some notes on your experience.

Step 3: Group discussion of a wise Stoic response: Facilitate a group discussion about how to handle the adversity Stoically. Reflect first on Stoic wisdom, and then in turn the other Stoic virtues including self-control, justice, courage and practical wisdom. Summarise and write down key features of the Stoic response on a board or screen for all participants to see.

Step 4 Finding a wise Stoic alternative to each participant’s initial thoughts:  With these Stoic principles in mind, ask people to spend a few minutes working on Stoic responses to their initial thoughts that they wrote down at step 2. After a few minutes ask for sample answers so that participants can learn from the more confident and experienced Stoics in the group. Finally ask participants to spend a few more minutes in pairs or on their own developing their appropriate Stoic alternatives to their initial step 2 reactions. Ask them to write down their wise Stoic responses.

Step 5 Facing the fear again this time rehearsing the Stoic Response:  Each participant is asked to read to themselves their initial thoughts and their Stoic response which they have just been working on. Then, with eyes closed, they should vividly remind themselves of the adversity, their original non-Stoic reaction and then they should rehearse their Stoic response. They should repeat this several times. As they rehearse the Stoic response participants should particularly attend to what they feel like doing and what emotions they experience. Finally participants are requested to open their eyes and come back into the room.

The session concludes with participant feedback.

The New York Negative Visualisation Experience

So what happened when we tried this in New York?

Step 1: Preliminaries: It turned out no-one in the room supported Trump, or at least no-one admitted they did. Some people weren’t so sure about Hillary, either, though. There were a number of anti-Trump Republicans.

The practice of imagining one’s phone or ipad had broken worked well, allowing us to recall as a group the Stoic virtues and how they would help us deal with such an adversity.

What I hadn’t planned was a series of problems with the equipment – the lead to the projector did not fit my computer and when an alternative computer was provided, it could not read my presentation on my memory stick! That I managed to stay comparatively calm I put down to my having practised negative visualisation on something like this happening!

Step 2 : Visualising disaster: Table 1 below shows some of the thoughts, feelings and impulses participants experienced during the first part of the visualisation.

Emotion          Thoughts Impulse to





“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

“It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”


Get tranquilizers





Distract self

Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” Argue with everyone

Go on a tirade





“Trump represents everything I disagree with”

Hide in Bed

Give up


Table 1: Pre-Stoic Reactions to visualising Trump being elected President

Anxiety was the most common emotion, it manifesting viscerally as being “frozen like a deer in headlights”.   Participants imagined themselves handling their anxiety by using distraction, drink and medication. Anger, depression and despair were also present in the room as we imagined Trump winning, with people thinking they might go on a tirade if angry and hide in bed in despair. It appeared that we had plenty of material to work with …

Step 3: Group Discussion of a wise Stoic Response: What would be the wise Stoic response to Trump being elected? I have increasingly found it helpful to present Stoicism in a somewhat simplified form as a distinct form of virtue ethics with a set of associated practices. The most distinctly Stoic virtue, “Serenity Prayer Wisdom” is stated by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchridion

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.

The cardinal virtues of wisdom, self-control, justice and courage sum up how we should think and what we should do in the domains of knowledge, desire, other people and fear respectively. For completeness, I include love of humanity as part of justice and persistence as part of courage.

Looking at how to respond to an adversity through the lens of each virtue provides a very practical framework to determine a wise Stoic reaction. Table 2 below summarises how this framework can help us think about a Stoic response to Trump becoming President.

Stoic Virtue Meaning Application
“Serenity Prayer” Wisdom Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot control. Unless you can legally challenge it, you have to accept the result You can however change how you respond to it, and the challenge is to respond virtuously.


Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing emotions such as desire, appetite, lust & blame Self-control may be needed to manage impulses associated with anger and despair, such as feeling like going on a tirade or staying in bed and giving up.,
Justice & Love of humanity


Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.


Most obviously justice and love of humanity entail thinking about those likely to be negatively impacted by Trump how you can help them.

At the same time justice impies considering how to be just to democracy itself and to those who felt so disenchanted that they voted for Trump

Courage & Persistence Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’) or in the face of setbacks. Overcome the impulse to give-up – the values are still worth standing and fighting for, all the more so.

Reflect on this might be a time for putting pleasure to one side and campaigning for what is right.

Practical Wisdom


Given the situation I find myself in, what would the Stoic sage do? What virtues can help, and how can I best aim to achieve what matters?


What in practice do can I do? What I need to do? What resources and skills have I got that will be useful? What would I need to do? How could I do it?

Which virtues will I need to employ given my specific thoughts I had in step 2 of this Negative Visualisation?

Table 2: The Stoic Virtues, their meaning and application

A key point that emerges is that Stoicism is not a passive philosophy. Whilst an Epicurean response might be along the lines of “there is nothing I can do, so let’s work on how I can be tranquil”, justice and love of humanity entail that the Stoic engages with the world and its problems, practical wisdom gives us the wherewithal to think up good solutions and courage provides the means to overcome fears related to doing the right thing.

Step 4: Finding a Stoic reframe for your specific initial thoughts: We were now in a position for participants to review their original thoughts and reframe them, given what they had just learnt about Stoic virtue. Epictetus famously said that “It is not events that upset you but how you interpret them”. Would we find this to be the case here?

Emotion Pre-Stoic Thought Stoic Alternative Thought Resulting Stoic Emotion

“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

“It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”


Feeling more tranquil


Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” People have their reasons & concerns which I need to understand. I also need to work at helping more people understand my view More understanding

Feeling calm acceptance

Depression and Despair Trump represents everything I disagree with” I accept the fact that he is President, I will do what I can to mitigate the damage Strength that I can handle the situation”

Table 3: Finding Alternative Stoic Wise Rational and Virtuous Responses

Table 3 above shows that Stoicism can indeed lead to more constructive thinking and less turbulent emotions.

Instead of being so anxious like a deer frozen in headlights, the Stoic response, “It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”, led to participants feeling much more tranquil.

Anger was replaced by some empathy with those who voted for Trump and a determination to work harder at making one’s views understood.

Strength supplanted depression and despair, as soon as people applied Serenity Prayer wisdom and accepted that Trump was President and determined to do what they could to mitigate the damage.


Many participants told me that they had been helped by this Negative Visualisation exercise. I repeated it later at the London Stoic event, with similarly positive results. This is hardly surprising, since we have the positive testimony of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. Moreover Negative Visualisation combines features of two evidence-based modern psychological techniques, exposure and mental contrasting.

Exposure is the “gold standard” for tackling anxiety. If you are frightened of dogs, for example, to overcome the fear you need to expose yourself to the dogs in a suitable manner[2]. A similar principle applies in some treatments for worry The first part of Negative Visualisation, where you think vividly about the feared object, clearly involves exposure and so should be expected to reduce the anxiety and the shock if and when the adversity occurs.

Mental Contrasting is a recent technique advocated by Oettingen as an alternative to positive thinking. Suppose you have an important interview next week. Whilst positive thinking might entail you imagining the interview going well, mental contrasting involves imagining likely difficulties and then mentally rehearsing what you need to do to overcome potential problems. Mental contrasting has been shown to help people achieve their goals, for example in weight loss and stopping smoking. Clearly the second part of negative visualisation resembles mental contrasting, so once again one would anticipate that negative visualisation would be beneficial. The key difference is that Negative Visualisation has a broader scope than mental contrasting, pertaining not just to goals and achievements but to adversities in general and living virtuously in spite of them.

There is good reason then to expect Negative Visualisation both to reduce anxiety, shock and worry and to develop character and virtue. The feedback from the New York and London workshops was certainly encouraging. However for this to constitute serious research further investigation is required. For example, each participant could be given a questionnaire before the workshop detailing their emotions and likely actions relating to a specified adversity. The same questionnaire could be completed at the end of the workshop by each participant.. If the adversity relates to a shared real life concern (such as Trump being elected) participants could then be contacted again and asked to fill in the questionnaire. The results compared to a control group who did not attend such a workshop. Future Stoic Weeks could provide an opportunity to engaging in research about the benefits of Negative Visualisation.

This experience of doing two Negative Visualisations in a group setting has also led me to conjecture that there may be significant advantages in doing negative visualisations as a group exercise. In the first place, each participant gets a sense that they are not alone, that their concern is shared by others. More importantly perhaps, the group, guided by the facilitator, can help participants learn wise Stoic responses to specific adversities. Table 3 (above) certainly helped me cope when Trump actually was elected President! So perhaps more Negative Visualisation workshops could be held, on a variety of human concerns, in person or potentially virtually through the internet.

One thing Negative Visualisation clearly could not do was stop Trump being elected President. But that, as Epictetus would remind us, is the point. We cannot control events, but we can control our response to them.

[1] although they do not give it that name

[2] To do exposure successfully it should be repeated, at an appropriate level and you should not leave the situation until the anxiety comes down.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on tim@timlebon.com. His website is http://www.timlebon.com

Interview: Walter Matweychuk

Walter Matweychuk will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a clinical psychologist who has the good fortune of having work I love. I conduct around thirty-five adult outpatient individual and couples psychotherapy sessions a week at the University of Pennsylvania and in my private practice in Center City Philadelphia. The problems of everyday living I help people with range from coping with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, and phobias to behavioral disorders like addictions, to resuming one’s life in the aftermath of rape, serious accidents, medical illness, and failing to obtain tenure.

I also train and supervise doctoral level externs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as teach a graduate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy Theory and Applications at New York University in New York City. I maintain the website, REBTDoctor.com, which contains a great deal of freely accessible audio and video on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and do professional writing as well. I just completed, along with Dr. Windy Dryden, a book for professionals entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. In short I am a practicing psychologist who also trains and teaches psychologists, writes on and disseminates Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

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

I use Stoic ideas and Stoic quotations to teach people how to effectively manage their emotional and behavioral responses to both relatively small to immensely challenging adversities. I use Stoic ideas to potentiate my interventions as an REBT psychotherapist. Stoicism works hand in hand with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of this distinct form of cognitive behavior therapy, heavily borrowed from Stoicism to create Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Although I primarily recommend to my patients REBT self-help books for homework, I have also recommended Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as a homework assignment to my patients.

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

I am continually striving to enhance my skills as a REBT psychotherapist and self-actualize as an individual. I want to have the happiest and most meaningful life possible with the only life I assume I will ever have to live. I also especially want to share Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with the widest possible audience. Knowing Ellis borrowed heavily from Stoicism I assumed that by retracing the steps he took through reading the Stoics I might make further headway in accomplishing my previously stated personal goals. I am continually searching for ways to deepen my understanding of REBT and studying Stoicism seemed like a way of doing this.

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

The emphasis on identifying and focusing my effort on what is well within my domain of control and more or less being indifferent to those aspects of life and any given set of circumstances I cannot control. This single concept offers me incredible emotional leverage as I face personal adversity and as I teach and help my patients how to more effectively respond to their adversities. Secondly, when doing psychotherapy it is important to find language that resonates with patients in order to facilitate deep level emotional change. Although REBT has very powerful language associated with it, I judiciously sprinkle in Stoic quotes and ideas in order to keep the therapeutic dialogue fresh and interesting. Language and words in psychotherapy are like keys on a keychain. It is sometimes hard to know in advance which key will open a particular lock. By knowing and studying Stoicism I have some philosophical keys to try in my effort to open the emotional locks I am trying to pick, if you will.

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

Despite our great scientific and technological advances since the time of Epictetus people continue to struggle to manage their emotions, find meaning and happiness, and have difficulty coping with losses, deaths, medical illnesses, defeats, failures, and injustices. In my view Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy are efficient, powerful, and self-liberating tools I want to share with my fellow citizens of the world. Life is hard enough without needlessly making it harder by trying to control that which is outside our domain of control, while overlooking what is well within our sphere of control.

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

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy have immensely affected the way I live and the quality of life I enjoy. I no longer experience depression, anxiety, anger, envy and shame as I once did going way back to high school and even before that. When I do have a flash of one of these very self-defeating and unhealthy negative emotions I quickly swap them out for healthy negative emotions. I do this by examining my philosophy and any rigid and extreme attitudes operating at the moment so that I am better able to do what I can do, if anything, to favorably influence the situation I am facing. Let me explain.

In high school I began to see that my perceptions of reality impacted my painful emotions. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania I worked closely with Dr. Aaron Beck who originated (about five years after Ellis had created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) the second and a somewhat different form of cognitive behavior therapy. Beck’s Cognitive Therapy emphasizes and focuses on the inferences we make about reality and showed me how to check these inferences for erroneous assumptions and distortions in order to make certain these inferences are accurate and consistent with the available empirical data. This helps one’s emotions quite nicely when in fact our inferences about a given situation are distorted.

For example, if I have a medical symptom and think, “I have cancer and will die in the near future”, slowing down and checking to see if this is an accurate inference by consulting a physician will help alleviate my panic. However, what if in fact my inference is unfortunately correct and I do in fact learn the empirical data suggests I have an aggressive form of cancer and will likely die in a year or at most two. This is where Beck’s Cognitive Therapy begins to have some difficulty and where Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy shine.

These two closely related philosophies will enable me to face this existential adversity and cope with it. By having deep conviction in the liberating overlapping philosophes of Stoicism and REBT I do not have to panic or despair. I can choose my emotional destiny and still can have some degree of happiness right up to the end of my life. Although helpful in less dire situations, Stoicism and REBT are the philosophies to turn to when your worst nightmare is your reality. Since learning REBT and Stoicism I no longer fear the worst case scenario in my life when I think of things that might go wrong. I also am better able to have some happiness when things go wrong despite their presence in my life. In essence now that I know REBT and Stoicism I change what I can change and move on when I cannot change anything and still find a way to have some pleasure in my life despite the presence of adversity.

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

There are so many great Stoic quotations, so this is a very challenging question for me to answer. It used to be Seneca’s “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems” but it no longer is my favorite. I will select another by Seneca which is “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” I have selected this one simply because so much self-inflicted and other-inflicted damage and pain results from this unhealthy negative emotion whether one is angry at another person, himself, or in response to the situation in which he finds himself. This emotion is so seductive and yet so destructive that mastering the ability to not yield to anger at the tempting moment is an essential life skill if a person wants to be his best. Whether you hold anger in or let it out, anger significantly diminishes your creativity and problem-solving ability and can, paradoxically, undermine the persistence you bring to bear to solve the problem you face. I have also seen how anger corrodes or can suddenly end relationships, and the resulting pain that ensues from a moment of anger can be enormous and lifelong. I often silently say to myself as a way of preventing getting angry “Anger defeats me. Do not yield to it.”

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

My guess is that if you are interested in Stoicism you are also interested in applying this liberating philosophy to your life. With that in mind I have two recommendations. I would read books on both Stoicism and REBT because there can be a synergy created by doing this. I would start with Bill Irvine’s book titled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as it is so very accessible. Then I would go onto Epictetus’s Discourses. To me he is the hub of Stoicism. I would attend Stoicon on a regular basis to see and hear how Stoicism can be applied in different ways and meet fellow Stoics. I would regularly read Massimo Pigliucci’s website How to Be a Stoic as he seems to be quite the Stoic scholar.

I would also study the many self-help books written by Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden on Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. I sometimes think of REBT as the Cliff Notes of Stoicism or as a distilled, highly concentrated form of Stoicism. You will see how REBT efficiently teaches you how to implement the wisdom of Stoicism. You might even go and study the freely available audio and video found on my website REBTDoctor.com to facilitate your understanding of REBT. Finally, I would read a Stoic Quote every morning and write it on an index card. Carry it with you and try to find opportunity to apply that insight to any adversities you encounter during the day. Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living would be a good source of useful Stoic quotations along with daily commentary Holiday makes on the meaning and implementation of each quotation. Most importantly attempt to use Stoicism (and REBT) to learn Stoicism! As Epictetus said “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.”

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

Life is hard for all of us. Stoicism and REBT can help you more effectively respond to life’s adversities and to self-actualize. These philosophies can help you either quickly terminate or entirely side-step needless suffering. Learn these powerful philosophies and then be a good model of them to others. When they display curiosity about how you maintain such equanimity in the face of adversity then introduce them to both Stoicism and REBT. Let them know your secret!

Stoicism Saved Me by Roger Johnston

Stoicism saved me in a way. My last deployment to Iraq was particularly trying. I was medivacced out with just three weeks left of the deployment. I recall as the helicopter crew chief told me we had crossed the Kuwait border and that I was safe, I was relieved that I survived a war zone, but was under no illusion that I was “safe.” I’m a son of a Vietnam vet. The war did not end for him when he got home, in many ways it had only just begun for me. Relief quickly faded to resolve as I was determined not to suffer the same fate as my father: being angry at the world.

During recovery, back in the States, I could tell that my deployment had changed me. Infuriated would be a good word for how I felt 10 years ago during as I began to mend. Google militant atheist and my picture would show up and I would look pissed in it. I felt betrayed by my country, coopted to fight for profit and gain. I had seen so much suffering. The anger was poisoning everything, and what made the poison spread even further was that I was angry because I was angry. I had turned into my father.

It is difficult to describe what war does to a person, which is probably why many combat vets are reluctant to share their experiences. I have found that Plato was astute in his observations of the human condition and his allegory of the cave describes the experience of war fairly accurately. Seeing war is like being brought to the entrance of the cave, you are exposed to what life really is and upon return to the back of the cave you see the shadows for what they are—

Illusions. Those still chained within who have not experienced seeing the sun or color will struggle to understand, perhaps even call you mad for telling them they are living a life of illusion. I find it an extraordinary insight, and the parallels for returning combat veterans are uncanny. It is one of the best explanations for non combat veterans to understand the struggles of combat veterans, it also helps combat veterans understand they are not “broken” but are just processing what it is like to see the sun, so to speak.

I do not recall where I read it, but someone had suggested that if you were to bring an ancient philosopher to the present they would not be far off the mark addressing the struggles of modern humans. I came to a similar conclusion: perhaps their wisdom could help with my rage. I was determined to take this anger on headfirst. I was not going to be doomed to another 40-plus years of anger and I knew avoidance behaviors like drinking or isolation were not going to help me master emotional regulation. I certainly recognized that I was essentially a puppet and the master of my strings was my emotions.

I revisited the philosophers of Greece and Rome; I figured they had experienced war often and perhaps had some insight on how to address this experience of being brought to the mouth of the cave. As fate would have it, my therapist was bringing up Stoic thinkers during my therapy. So I began to learn the Stoics’ philosophy in depth and apply any insight I discovered. I was first introduced to Stoic thought in high school and again in college in the early 90’s and recalled that Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called Meditations. I started there.

It does not take long when you begin to read a Stoic philosopher to realize that Stoicism is a philosophy of action. Marcus Aurelius is no different. Meditations was a compilation of his thoughts written in a journal. Many of his thoughts are calls to action, to improve, to remember, and above all live a life of virtue. So in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I will explain how I implemented Stoicism and took action to gain some sort of mastery over my emotions and quell the fire of anger.

I believe that one should start Stoic practice with non-emotionally charged circumstances, something you do daily. This could include shopping or interactions with strangers, but I think one of the best places to begin is driving. I’m not the only one to suggest this is a starting point for Stoic practice; other notable Stoic practitioners have made similar recommendations. For me, I started Stoic application to driving about nine years ago and I’ll share step by step how I did it and include insightful quotes from Marcus Aurelius to encourage taking considerate action.

For me this quote by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations was the starting point of my Stoic practice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” So how does this apply to driving? Well, the answer is relatively straightforward; you have no control over other drivers, the street conditions, and traffic signals/signs; you only have control over your own driving. Period. When I first got home, I was very outside focused when driving. I would full on rage at other drivers, “what is that idiot doing?” and other profanity-laced variations. My daughters use to laugh at me and call me the Road Raged Dad. So, the first application for me began by asking a simple question: “Do you have control over what other drivers are doing?” The answer is always no. “Then why are you getting angry over something you can not control?”

At first, my responses to that question were some variation of the other driver was intentionally trying to make me mad. “That SOB knew I was coming and got over anyway,” for example. Which invariably leads to another question: “Are people intentionally trying to make you upset driving?” Of course they are not, most of them are driving for their own self-interest, trying to get to where they are going, caught up in their own world of concerns. Marcus Aurelius had a remedy for this false sense of injury and rationalized anger comes from a misapplied sense of justice, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

When I began my Stoic driving practice, I would constantly try and work from the premise that I only have control over how I drive and would focus on that. If someone were to cut me off, I would tell myself, “I can’t control him, only me, give him the space.” If I felt a sense of injury and reacted, I would say to myself, “No one can make you mad but you, own your reactions.” Again, only something I can control. So the first step was focusing on what I can control my driving and my reactions.

So for about six months I really focused on those two aspects of control, my driving and reactions. I was testing Marcus Aurelius’ advice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Over that time, I realized that there was a whole lot of things I can’t control and very little I could. So I visualized a very large circle representing all the things I can’t control and a small circle of the things I can. I narrowed my question whenever something came up while driving to “Are you focused on the large circle or taking action in the small?” If I answered yes to the first one, then I immediately shifted to the small circle. It has worked like a charm for me ever since. My angry reactions started getting less frequent and less intense and I contend Marcus Aurelius’ statement passes the test with flying colors.

After focusing on what I could control and let go of what I cannot, I continued my study of Meditations and came across this journal entry: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” The part about estimations really stood out to me. It dawned on me after I read it that asking questions after the fact was all good and well, but If I master estimations then my need to navigate tricky reactions would be cut down dramatically. The light bulb came on and the hypothesis formed–a right objective view is key to equanimity.

To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, at every instant circumstances and environment bombard us with information that gives rise to impressions or value judgments. According to the Stoics, we have to be very careful to give objective estimations or we may apply these reactionary value judgments to circumstances that require none. In essence, we become slaves to our emotions when we overly indulge in labeling events as “good or bad”, when in fact they may not be. So let’s apply this idea to driving. Imagine you encountered an erratic driver, flashing his lights, cutting people off, who ran a stop sign and was traveling well over the speed limit. Stop and think how you would react to a person driving in this manner. Now for many combat vets, including me, this instantly warrants the one-finger salute and a whole tirade of swearing and rage. Did you immediately create a value judgment as you imaged the situation?

Lets put Marcus Aurelius to the test again with an event in my own life. I had been practicing focusing on the small circle of control for about a year when I was on my way to see a Batman movie marathon. I was excited because the new third film was included. My son called while we were on the way to the show and informed us that he had been shot in the eye by a paintball. He was in shock, didn’t know what to do and called us instead of the 911 line. I was closer to him than any medical personnel so I rushed over to his location. I applied what I learned in combat life saver classes in the military, knew that time was paramount to save his eye.

Here is where the discipline of estimations comes into play, if you had seen me driving like maniac and somehow got the information that I was driving my son to the emergency room would your perception radically change? When I contemplated that day, I realized that I was applying reactionary value judgments on other drivers daily without knowing a damn thing that was going on with them. How do I know the reason why they are cutting me off? Or on the phone while driving? Or speeding? Could they be taking their son to the hospital? Rushing to get to the bathroom before they have an accident?

This story should drive home the point that misplaced value judgments skew our estimations. If you objectively look at a situation and have no real evidence of why people are doing what they are doing, then your emotional reactions are completely on you because you are the one placing the value judgments. When you begin to understand the power of estimations you realize you are better off demanding evidence, exercise more useful course of action and display emotional flexibility by realizing your views of the world may not be accurate. Those chained to the back of the cave are fairly certain about the shadows I suspect and that is where the real slavery begins.

So to simplify the second skill of applying objective estimations, I took a twofold approach. First I would visualize my trip ahead of time, running through my head any possible scenarios that may occur and applying objective estimations. For example, exiting the freeway I objectively visualize what traffic may do and thus be less prone to place reactionary value judgments when an incident does happen. The second half is, should a reactionary value judgment occur in real time then I would simply ask myself “Where is the evidence that your estimation is accurate?” or “Is your estimation useful to the point of taking right action?”

Combined with constantly being aware of which circle of control I was working in objective estimation took my Stoic practice to the next level. I’ve been testing Marcus Aurelius for about 10 years now and I have yet to prove him wrong. When I get angry, I know I’m focused on the large circle of what I can’t control and/or have placed a reactionary value judgment on circumstances that required objective estimations. I’ve found Marcus Aurelius right when he said reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears. Rejection is easy when objectivity is applied I’ve found.

In my journey, I never told my family about what I was doing nor asked them how I was progressing. I just did it and I can’t emphasize enough that Stoicism requires action, not talk or over-intellectualizing. It took years for them to see real progress. They remembered the antics of a cliché angry combat vet and those memories are hard to forget. One day – I never will forget – my daughters told me, “Dad you aren’t angry anymore.” That was after six years of taking action. I can report that it takes a lot to make me upset and lose equanimity today. I moved on from just applying these principles to non-emotionally charged events to o emotionally charged events like relationships. I think there is wisdom in applying skills in a daily, deliberate way as to work your way up to more difficult situations.

A decade of concerted practice has paid off. I get unsolicited feedback of “you are the calmest person I’ve ever met” often. To return to Plato’s cave allegory, I have learned to embrace what I have seen at the mouth of the cave, that if you call the shadows on the back of the cave anything other than shadows then your estimations need work. I realize those that have only seen shadows fall into the value judgment trap and are focused on the big circle of what they can’t control. Most of all I realize that combat was like being dragged to the mouth of the cave, but I’m not broken for experiencing it, just the opposite.

Like Vietnam combat veteran and POW James Stockdale has stated, I tested Stoicism and it passed with flying colors. As such I believe my life has been unleashed because of applying stoic concepts. But a word of caution as you practice Stoicism, I find that many in our society struggle when they encounter a well-practiced Stoic. It took my family years to adjust to my indifference about many things, my objective evaluations and calming of emotional reactions. It was worth the struggle and applied action. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything and my life has become unleashed. I’m currently trying to bring even more Stoicism in my practice to help vets. I talk about it all day long. In a real sense, Stoicism saved me and taught me how to address Plato’s concerns about the cave. I hope you find my applications useful and fate permitting, you apply them and test them for yourself.


Roger Johnston is a Clinical Social Worker who works with combat veterans and retired from the U.S. Army having experienced combat himself. Roger is currently in the crossing the return threshold stage of the hero’s journey and hoping to mentor others on their own hero’s journey.  Far from being a master of two worlds or a sage, Roger hopes to impart what little hard-earned wisdom he has learned in practicing stoicism for a decade.

Interview with Greg Sadler

Interview with Greg Sadler about his interest in Stoicism.

Gregory SadlerDr. Sadler will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.Gregory Sadler is the Editor of Stoicism Today and the president of ReasonIO. His popular philosophy-focused YouTube channels contain over 100 video lectures on Stoic philosophy.

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

I’m a guy who keeps pretty busy! I’m the current editor of Stoicism Today, a member of Modern Stoicism, and the co-organizer of the MKE Stoic Fellowship. All of those are volunteer positions, so I earn my living with my company ReasonIO, engaging in philosophical counseling, online teaching, public speaking, tutorials, and consulting. Through the Institute for Priority Thinking, I do ethics training and executive coaching. I also produce YouTube videos on a variety of philosophical thinkers and texts. After about a decade as a professor, I left the academy to do philosophy in more public, practical, and professional settings, but I still keep professionally active, by publishing and presenting in my field.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

At times quite openly, and at other times, smuggling it in! When I’m training corporate clients in, for example, understanding and dealing with anger, they’re much less interested in where the ideas came from, and much more interested in what’s effective and applicable. Stoicism figures heavily into my work as a philosophical counselor, and I incorporate Stoic philosophy into a considerable portion of my public speaking, and teaching. I should mention, though, that rather than being exclusively a Stoic, I’m what you call an “eclectic” (much like Cicero), or if you like, a “pluralist”. I integrate and draw upon multiple approaches – Stoic, Aristotelian, (later) Platonist, even dialectical and existentialist – within my work.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

A long ways back, but at first only superficially. I’d say that I was attracted to some Stoic ideas – without knowing where they came from – back in my high school and Army days. And then I encountered Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some modern treatments of Stoic ideas as an undergraduate philosophy major. But it was really only in my graduate studies that I’d say I really began to understand and appreciate Stoic philosophy’s scope, depth, applicability, and systematic nature. That happened through getting my hands on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses. I got a second major spur to seriously studying Stoicism, once I became a professor, with my ongoing work on treatments of anger, emotion, and rationality.

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

That is a hard one for me to answer. Stoicism really is a systematic philosophy, and in my view – here a lot of people will say I’m dead wrong! – there isn’t just one single doctrine that is the most central. That said, if I had to pick one thing that I personally find most interesting about Stoicism, for me it would be a notion that we find most explicitly developed in Epictetus. It’s what he calls prohairesis, and what we often translate as “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”, or (a bit misleadingly) “will”. This is the very core of the human person, and it is what we are working on – using itself to work on itself – when we are engaging in the kind of self-improvement Stoicism suggests we focus on.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The very number of people who are interested in Stoicism at present – and who stick with it over time – should tell us something! People from all walks of life and with all sorts of backgrounds are finding aspects of Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful or liberating when applied to their own lives. It’s one thing for academics and other professional practitioners to be interested in a philosophical approach, or even to apply it in their lives and talk about it with each other. It’s something entirely different when a philosophy from two millennia back has something to say to a much wider audience in our present-day culture.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Not as much as it ought to have, or I’d have liked it to have! Oh – you were asking “How?”, not “How much?” I’d say that it has helped me place matters into perspective – with things that I do still sometimes let myself get quite affected by, more than I’d like. Getting angry, for instance: I do a lot of work on anger, and that was originally motivated by wanting to better understand and deal with my own feelings, responses, habits, and assumptions.

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

It’s one from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“When you are about to put your hand to some undertaking, remind yourself what sort of undertaking it is.”

We have a choice, but it is one that we have to make over and over again. What do we allow our desires and aversions to focus upon? For the Stoic, the way Epictetus puts it, it is keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature. If we can stick with that – which isn’t easy, I’ll admit! – we’re going to be all right.

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

I’m a big believer in going to the original sources. There is a lot of excellent “secondary” literature on Stoicism available, most of which has been written in the last three decades. I’ve also produced a number of videos on Stoic thought – and have plans to create hundreds more – but that’s more or less like secondary literature as well. There’s nothing like actually reading the “big three” – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – and seeing for oneself what they taught and thought firsthand. You could add what we have of Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, and the very informative presentations of Stoic thought by Diogenes Laertes and Cicero.

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

Indeed I do! I think it’s quite astounding how quickly modern Stoicism has developed into a worldwide community of practice, connected up with each other in large part through the internet. It’s truly inspiring just to witness how many people have found Stoic philosophy to be useful to incorporate within their own lives. I’m also very pleased to to get to play my small part in the larger mission of the Modern Stoicism organization. I think there’s great things ahead for decades to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what shape those take.


Interview: Chuck Chakrapani

Dr. Chakrapani will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a psychologist by training, and a data scientist by profession. I don’t approach Stoicism as a scholar, expert or philosopher, but as a student. A student sitting in the back row of Epictetus’ lectures, trying to figure what he is saying and (if it made sense), how to apply it to my own life. My view of Stoicism is that it contains some profound insights which, if applied to our everyday life, can change it for the better. And in short order.

My work (besides to my day job) currently centers on making the Stoic writings accessible to anyone interested in them. My book Unshakable Freedom shows how Stoicism can be applied to your life, no matter who you are or what you do. The Good Life Handbook is a slightly rearranged plain English version of Enchiridion. The current blog series Discourses in Plain English re-expresses Epictetus’ Discourses in modern English. For the past year or so, I have been devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to reading and writing about Stoicism.

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

This is a simple question. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. If I clearly see that “it is useless to worry about things over which I have no control” it applies equally to whether I get into a traffic jam or whether my presentation is received poorly by my colleagues. It is as useless to worry about a promotion that you did not get as it is to worry about a steak you already overcooked. Once you internalize some profound passages of Stoicism such as Marcus Aurelius’

Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good…” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)

it often short circuits your frustration when you find someone annoying, unjust, or unfair. From my perspective, the principles apply equally to your work and to the other parts of your life.

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

I have been involved in Stoic thought practically all my life. When I was still a nerdy high school kid, I picked up a book by Marcus Aurelius To Himself, also called Meditations. Marcus Aurelius seems to have a special appeal to people who, like him, governed countries – America’s Bill Clinton, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, China’s Wen Jiabao – to name a few. The version I read was also a translation by a governor of a country – C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India. To me, Meditations was just an emperor’s thoughts which I found interesting. Several years later, I picked up a copy of Enchiridion. I still didn’t know much about Stoicism and didn’t connect it to Marcus. Later still, I came across Discourses, and for the first time, realized that they all refer to the same philosophical system, Stoicism. Subsequently, I tried to understand it as system of philosophic thought.

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

The opening sentence of the Enchiridion.

Some things are in our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I.1. Robin Hard’s translation.)

To me, this is the sword of wisdom that cuts through so much of our cluttered and confused thinking. For years I struggled with Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

I don’t know about others, but for me, “wisdom to know the difference,” wasn’t easy to come by. Epictetus defined it to me.

Add to this the Marcus Aurelius quote I referred to earlier, and now we know the words and behavior of others don’t bind us either. All that is left for us is to enjoy the festival of life.

These two passages contain more practical wisdom than one hundred self-help books. Don’t worry about things you have no control over and don’t be reactive to what others say or do. That’s it. If you fully internalize the meaning of these two passages, I believe your life will change dramatically for the better.

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

Stoicism is timeless. When I read Epictetus, for example, I cannot help but wonder, “How is it that the same philosophy appealed to the least and the most powerful men living at about the same time? How is it that the thoughts of a slave, who lived two thousand years ago far removed in every respect from the world we live in today, resonate with me, are relevant to me, and make my days better?” We are psychologically the same. The form changes but the matter remains.

So, it is not question of whether Stoicism matters today. I don’t believe there ever was a time when it did not matter. There were only times when people thought it did not matter.

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

Sometimes I describe myself as a “Stoic minimalist.” I don’t practice Stoicism as such but use a few principles of Stoicism that have the potential to change one’s life. I already mentioned two. There are two more.

Don’t grow peevish about trivialities: Vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is bad, it upsets my constitution; I didn’t like the vegetables.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.4.25. Robert Dobbin’s translation)

The final one comes from these two quotes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later,” and

You will be able to view each and every day as a festival.
(Epictetus, Discourses I.1.32 & IV.4.46. Robin Hard’s translation)

As a Stoic minimalist, I just try to remember these four thoughts when I face any friction.

  1. Is this under my control or am I simply spinning my wheels?
  2. Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
  3. Am I getting peevish about trivialities?
  4. Am I enjoying the festival of life that’s right in front of me?

Sure enough, things get better. I don’t always remember, and I don’t always succeed. But I remember enough and succeed enough that I can say that my life is far better because of that.

I am content to employ a few basic principles which, when practiced consistently enough, elevates the quality of my life and makes my life run smoothly. Maybe not all the time, but something like 90% of the time. And that is good enough for me.

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

I am glad you asked, because Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, are so eloquent, there can’t be just one. My favorite is this by Epictetus:

I have this purpose: To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to practice these things.” (Discourses II.19.29).

This is a breathtaking promise. It is audacious, uncompromising, unconditional, and unequivocal. Why is this my favorite? Not just because it is bold, but because Epictetus stood by it and never went back on that promise as long as he lived.

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

My advice would of course be biased. It would depend on why someone wants to learn about Stoicism. If they want to increase their general knowledge, I would perhaps refer them to someone like Massimo Pigliucci or Greg Sadler or Donald Robertson, who are far better qualified than I. But if advice-seekers want to better their lives, I would advise them to read something simple like the Enchiridion and reflect on the passages that particularly appeal to them. Apply them to their lives and internalize the principle. They don’t have to rush immediately to read Discourses, Meditations or Epistulae Morales There is time enough for that. A few profundities make one’s life far better than tons of trivialities.

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

I sometimes wonder if people make it more complicated than it need be to reap the benefits of Stoic thought. Isn’t it simple enough just to follow what makes sense to us, test it to see if it works? If it does, why does anything else matter? Why check if there is a god or not? Or even if you are virtuous or not? Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know.

Chuck Chakrapani is the founder of The Stoic Gym and the author of Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, and The Good Life Handbook

Forgotten Realms? Stoic Philosophy’s Potential For Modern Secular Humanism by Sascha Rother

Studying philosophy should be of great value for all Secular Humanists. It represents a cultural endeavor to examine the human condition seeking answers to existential questions, answers that are not necessarily atheistic, but in many cases non-theistic or at least agnostic in their outlook. Moreover, philosophies, in particular those of Graeco-roman antiquity, offer elaborate world-views, showing people how to lead the “good and happy life”, which makes them especially attractive for adherents of a more practical Humanism.

It is therefore not surprising that, with the growing number of non-religious people, and people looking for ethical values outside (their) religion, there has been another renaissance of books written on that topic, further accompanied by talks, discussion groups in social media, as well as international activities (e.g. Stoicon). Although one can find offerings of this kind on almost every major ancient philosophical school (especially books on living), two schools nowadays particularly stand out: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Being a Secular Humanist myself, I came across Stoicism about three years ago, and reading the works of the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as well as partaking in Stoic Week, I became attached to that philosophical tradition. Since then, I have been trying to communicate the ideas of Stoicism within the Humanist community, but found only a few, interested in this matter. Those with whom I could discuss it in more detail seemed rather skeptical, or even opposed to Stoicism; instead, they quite fervently sided with Epicurus. Looking at material of various Humanist organizations, and books by various authors, I soon realized that this was not by all means a national peculiarity: Stoic philosophy seems to have relatively little place within the Secular Humanist community. In contrast, Epicurean thought seems to thrive, and citations of his philosophical works regularly appear in all kinds of Humanist publications.

In his “Very Short Introduction” to Humanism the philosopher Stephen Law even considers Epicurus to be virtually the greatest among the predecessors of modern (i.e. secular) Humanism, since he adopted Democritus´s atomic model, and because of his criticism of religion and its belief in gods. Interestingly, however, although he does mention Seneca and Cicero, he does not say anything about Seneca´s close affiliation to Stoicism, nor does he say anything about the influence of Stoic thought (at least in part) on Cicero´s philosophical and political works. Given the fact that communities of Secular Humanists are predominantly atheistic in their outlook – in fact many advocate the natural sciences as the best way to understand the human existence, and there is a strain of Humanists who propose what they call Evolutionary Humanism – could it then be that there is some bias in their reception of classic ancient philosophies?

To clarify things, it is not my aim to refute Epicureanism, nor do I want to persuade Secular Humanists not to read his works or those of related authors; as Seneca used to say, “there are a lot of good ideas” to be gained from it, so “one should not trouble themselves where they come from”. Rather, I want to encourage Humanists of all sorts to study Stoic philosophy, as still today it is one major root of our understanding what humanism is about. To do this, I will address the area of physics (without theology), theology, and ethics, putting Epicurean and Stoic perspective side by side, and see if there are misconceptions on both sides.

As I already mentioned, philosophers, such as Stephen Law, but also others (like German philosopher, author, and speaker of the secularist Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, Michael Schmidt-Salomon), argue that Epicurus is the primary source for modern Humanism due to his advocating the atomistic word-view of Democritus. Schmidt-Salomon goes even further attributing him almost first-hand authorship of evolutionary theory. Now, two questions may be asked here: firstly, whether from a scientific point of view these perspectives will entirely stand up to scrutiny; and secondly, whether Epicurus was indeed the only philosopher who could be regarded as an advocate of these ideas.

As to the first point, there is no doubt that the sources, which both Law and Schmidt-Salomon refer to, could be understood in a way that, from hindsight, allows for a modern scientific interpretation. In the letter to Herodotus phrases like “changes (i.e. in the matter) are achieved through rearrangement, adhesion, or dissolution of atoms” sound as if Epicurus is anticipating what we know as modern chemistry; however, other assumptions of Epicurus concerning the origin of atoms, their indestructability, as well as their proposed movements are likely to dampen such expectations.

This is still more the case if we look at Schmidt-Salomon´s claim that Epicurus in fact anticipated Darwin´s evolutionary theory. Again, although parts of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius refers to Epicurus natural philosophy and cosmology, can be read accordingly (“Survival of the stronger and more useful animals”), it lacks essential elements of Darwin´s theory, namely the common ancestry of all organisms. Quite to contrary, its vision of extinct (if we can attribute this term to him) animals shows a rather crude and, to a certain degree, almost mythological idea of what the selection process and genealogy of animals (and other organisms) might be like. This, however, is not surprising, as it took Darwin a five-years voyage, and more than 20 years of additional research, until he dared to publish what became to be the most important theory in modern biology.

To do Epicurus some more justice, we must add that Stoicism in this regard does not do any better. Even if we interpret the Stoic concept of the Heraclitian flow of the elements in an ecological fashion (i,e, the interdependency of organisms and matter exchange in ecological systems), something that John Sellars terms the Gaia hypothesis, we are certainly better off without it. Looking further into other areas of both, Epicurean and Stoic natural philosophy and cosmology (e.g. the nature of earth quakes), we perceive similar, but from a modern perspective crude ideas about how nature works. Finally, we have to acknowledge that over-extending the boundaries of philosophical arguments as deductive tools for natural phenomena will likely lead us astray.

So, if ancient theories (Epicurean and Stoic) about nature have only limited value for a proto-scientific, humanist world-view, can anything other be drawn from it? Again, in De Rerum Natura, and Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus, the reader is advised to study nature as a means to realize the rationality of nature and “thus to soothe the soul”. For the Stoics, nature as they perceived it held no miraculous components, as everything was governed by a rational principle, the Logos. So, if there was no need to worry about natural events, could there be any other value to studying nature? It seems that Seneca got it right, when in his treatise “On Earthquakes”(book 6 of his Naturales Quaestiones) he expressed the following:

[…] It is a worthy enterprise to investigate the causes behind these occurrences. What, you ask, will justify this effort? The reward will be to know Nature, and no prize is greater than this. The subject has numerous features which will prove useful, but the perusal of this material contains nothing more beautiful in itself than that by means of its own splendor it engages the minds of men and is cultivated, not for the sake of profit, but for the wonder it excites. […]

“Isn´t it wonderful?” Nothing other than this exclamation by the physicist Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot), who is often invoked by Secular Humanists of all sorts to emphasize the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of a world-view based on natural science, could have echoed more this statement by Seneca, which also alludes to the Stoic notion of humans being integrated parts of a greater whole.

If Epicureanism cannot rival Stoicism with regard to natural philosophy, maybe it will do so when we look at their theology? Wasn’t Epicurus an atheist per excellence, whereas Stoics were committed to a belief in a god/God? To be precise, Epicurus never denied the existence of gods. He actually had quite an exact idea what they were like (i.e. made of). And the Stoics?

Considering myself a 9.9 atheist on a 1-10 scale, I have to admit that it took me a while to get over this talking about God/god, especially when I started reading Epictetus; but also the question about a providential universe, as discussed from Seneca on to Marcus Aurelius might be potentially off-putting to strict non-believers. However, one must take into account that by “god/God” the Stoics did not understand a personal (monotheistic) Deity that intervenes into the affairs of human beings. Rather, the more or less equal use of the terms “god,” “logos,” cosmos,” “nature” suggests that everything, including the human condition, could be understood in a rational, yet overarching way.

The transcendent aspects of this might be attractive to some, whereas to others they are not. But do we necessarily have to buy it all? As we have already seen in the case of natural philosophy, we should be careful about any uncritical reception. Nevertheless, one might argue, Epicureanism and Stoicism were meant to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked for individual doctrines. I whole-heartedly disagree, and as I will now argue in the last part, we even have to do this for the sake of the most important part of Stoic philosophy, its ethics.

Both, Epicureanism and Stoicism were ethics-driven philosophies, meaning that physics (including theology), logic (i.e. cognition, thinking and language) were subordinated to the fundamental question as to how one should live the best life possible. For the Epicureans, pleasure and absence of pain were the ultimate goals in life. Everything else was to be seen in dependence of this principle, including virtue.

We must praise that which is noble, the virtues, and things of this kind, if they create in us the feeling of pleasure. If they fail to please us, we should not bother about them.

I encourage people to strive for endless pleasures, not for futile virtues, the fruit of which one can only hope to earn being full of restlessness.

Although Epicurus and adherents of his philosophy repeatedly tried to emphasize that by pleasure they primarily sought mental, not bodily pleasures (see: Letter to Menoeceus), we know from Cicero (in On Ends) that the ambiguous use of the word “pleasure” (Greek: hedoné) continuously raised problems, and apparently certain sayings by Epicurus also revealed this ambiguity to the term:

The beginning and root of all good lies in the belly; even wisdom and everything derived from it, is related to this pleasure.

Now, the Stoics would be the last to deny physical needs, and they readily acknowledged not only food, but also health as something that is naturally preferred by humans. However, it is also indifferent in relation to leading a good life – meaning for the Stoics a life, in which a person matures to the state, where they feel a strong inclination to care for the need of other human beings as much as for their own. The concentric circles of Hierocles give a good example of this attitude.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:  “Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another.”  This did not mean they were naïve concerning the potential malice which humans would often inflict upon each other, as he continued: either instruct them, then, or put up with them.”

We also find this attitude in another famous passage of his Meditations (II, 1):

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. But I […] then can never be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one that is akin (i.e. of the same mind and origin) to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together. […] To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature.

With this Marcus refers to the human nature particularly, but also to the greater nature, of which humans are a part. This is in stark contrast to Epicurus, one of whose fragments might be understood as a direct reply to the Stoic position:

Don´t let yourselves be fooled, you people, not be seduced, nor deceived! Believe me, there is no natural community for those endowed with Reason. Whoever says so, is cheating on you!

It is not surprising that from an Epicurean perspective the best life was conducted outside society, surrounded only by a lose array of like-minded friends; certainly, no philosophy probably had individualism spelled out larger than Epicureanism, and it is not surprising that the “pursuit of happiness” built into the American constitution by Jefferson bears these traits. It might also explain why many Secular Humanists, through their sense of non-religiousness, feel especially attracted to this kind of world-view. However, there is a bit of aloofness and self-indulgence to it, which in a way counteracts the claim of (modern) Humanism to strive for a better society.

But, looking at the US, and though-out world history, we also repeatedly find a strong emphasis on duty and public engagement (see e.g. T. Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic), and we encounter individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, who through their commitments did neither seek pleasure, nor try to avoid pain. Instead, and regardless of any cost, they decided to do what they felt was right.

…but if we imagine, I say, that they (i.e. the gods) take no counsel about our affairs, it is still possible for me to take counsel about myself, and it is for me to consider where my own benefit lies. And the benefit of every being lies in what accords with its own constitution and nature. Now my nature is that of a rational and sociable being. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe. So, what benefits these, is the sole good to me.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, 44)

As Marcus Aurelius rightly recognized, the Stoic tenet of virtue as the basis of a good human life stands firm with or without a divine stamp of approval (see also: W. Ferraiolo, 2015). His saying also reflects the notion that the fabric into which our individual existence is woven is not only affected by our relationships at a communal level, but that as human beings we also contribute to the well-being of all humans, as well as our planet.

Given the many global challenges we are facing today, there is great need for public engagement, and a renewed cosmopolitan outlook. In this regard, Stoicism has a lot to offer that modern Humanists might want to get to know and then incorporate.


Sascha Rother is a natural scientist by training and got his PhD in Biochemistry. Living with his family in the city of Hannover, located in northern Germany, he is currently working as a teacher at an integrated secondary school. In his free-time he volunteers for the German Humanist Association (HVD) of Lower Saxony, where he currently holds the office of the local chairman.