Do People Commit Evil Out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci

This post is the transcript of Professor Pigliucci’s’ presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference.  A videorecording of the talk will be available in the coming weeks.  The slides can be downloaded here.

Epictetus wrote:

For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right. (Discourses, II.26)

It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during  the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea:

Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her  — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent:

What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!):

Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.

Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity”; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty member in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’ (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm. (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting

Sustainable development is an important concern of the 21st century and is one that this article will hopefully show can and should be navigated with a stoic framework. Environmental degradation can be measured using footprints of all sorts: carbon, water, ecological and material. These footprints are enlarging, which shows that humankind’s impact on the planetary system is increasing to the detriment of the other beings we share space with [1]. Consequently, it is of no coincidence that there are serious talks and working groups proposing that the current geological epoch is no longer the Holocene but rather the Anthropocene [2]. The “anthro-” prefix reflects the growing realisation and physical evidence that human activity, more than any other force of nature, is driving the climate.

When hearing about global warming, mass extinction, deforestation and pollution many of us point a finger at an economic system built on consumerism. We consider the mantra of growth as the culprit of environmental degradation and in some instances social ills. We almost certainly agree that the Pareto Principle applies to wealth acquisition because of the focus and favouring of the rich individuals and corporations when it comes to say tax breaks and tax havens. But for all the finger pointing, a 21st century stoic led philosopher would not state that systems are teleological; in the sense that they do not have reasons, purposes or inclinations. Rather, they would reflect on the fact that in a human made system, it is the collective virtue of those that create systems and not the system itself, which direct them.

The near-universal acceptance of money and the capitalist-consumerist ideal is something that Harari, in his book Sapiens [3], argues most people (unfortunately) live up to, more so than say their Christian, Buddhist, or dare I say stoic, ideals. Certainly, the authority given to the market as a ruler of the Earth, rather than a subject reined in by its physical limitations, bears an uncanny resemblance to Spinoza’s god in Ethics [4] to the point of being able to quote it almost directly:

“Money is to be], endowed with human freedom, to take care of all things for men, make all things for their use and direct all things for the use of men in order to bind men and be held by men in the highest honour.

The privilege given to money and thus intrinsically economic growth, to be upheld above all else, is found even in the unlikeliest of places, should we agree that, by definition growth cannot be sustained. The bias towards growth and the valuing of growth first and foremost is clearly seen in the language of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals declaration [5] where the term is mentioned 17 times in contradictory phrases (sustained growth, being sustainable) such as this one:

Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity (Point 27)

The overemphasis on growth and its rhetoric not only continues to go unnoticed even in the most socially aware circles (one would at least hope) but also crowds out environmental goals which continue to be less in number, less well-defined and more often than not addressed as secondary points under a socio-economic banner [6]. The push for growth at the expense of environmental concerns seems to me, at least, to be the antithesis of achieving the United Nation’s long –held target of “reversing the depletion of environmental resources” or combating climate change.

The axiom that “growth is good” and thus “more growth is better” is also sketched out in the economic models that dominate our thinking processes. The so-called environmental Kuznet’s curve (Kuznet, the economist who developed the metric of GDP and warned against its use as a measure of wellbeing), for example, is established on the premise that environmental degradation is the cost of progress. The problem is that growth is considered limitless and a preference that must be favoured and sustained over all else. For its devotees, and there are enough of them, it is only growth that will un-do this mess (for a comic look at the absurdities of this proposition please see here.).

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of the aforementioned belief it is hard to see growth for what it is. It is even harder to argue against its necessity, beyond a certain point of meeting basic needs, to further degrees of wellbeing and fulfilment. Critiques of the aforementioned growth hypothesis are downplayed, considered politically unsound, or at the very least, engaged in wishful thinking. So even, when empirical evidence shows that a one percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.6 percent growth in material consumption, and that a one percent growth in GDP leading to a 0.5 to 0.7 percent increase in carbon emissions [7,8], proponents of sustainability still call for growth, proclaiming greener alternatives such as decoupling and not a paradigm shift towards prosperity without growth as the answer.

Stoic Considerations: Virtue and Physics

It is hard to imagine a philosophical framework further away from Stoicism then the status quo described above. For a Stoic, it is virtue and not growth that must be placed above all in our progress towards eudaimonia. And, it is virtue, not money that is the ultimate source of a life worth living.

In my opinion, it is our moral obligation as students of Stoicism to ask ourselves if we believe in the neoclassical economic view of preferences. We are called to question the underlying assumption that utility is gained when we add more of x and y to our possession. For a stoic, at best, x and y if things (and not virtues) are preferred indifferents, as long as having them does not diminish our virtue and (perhaps) improves our life. And in such case, we shouldn’t prefer having more of them or having them at all. At worse, x and y undermine our virtue because in purchasing them we buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese factories, Brazilian rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York.

At the same time, Stoicism doesn’t call us to abandon capitalism (which in its simplest form is a way of distributing goods through the market rather than central government) or refrain from consuming in a way that Diogenes of Sinope would approve. Rather, and as Massimo Pigliucci states in How to be a Stoic [9]:

Stoicism is about developing the tools to deal as effectively as humanly possible, with the ensuing conflicts, does not demand perfection and does not provide specific answers: those are for fools, who think the world is black and white, good versus evil, where it is always possible to clearly tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is not the world we live in, and to pretend otherwise is more than a bit dangerous and not at all wise.

So, if a student of Stoicism is not charged with coming up with a specific answer, how can our philosophy offer solutions to the sustainable development debate? Other than demanding of ourselves that which is virtuous, a practice that involves making tough and sometimes inconvenient choices, we are also called to “follow nature” or to study “physics”. To paraphrase Lawrence Becker [10], it is our duty to come to terms with the nature of reality and those facts that dictate our physical existence and our mental representation of the world. It is in undertaking this exercise that useful insights provide us with the means to tackle the complexity of sustainability.

In my opinion, understanding physics starts at the first and second law of thermodynamics for it are these that provide an absolute mark of where possibility begins and ends, regardless of how efficient our technologies become. The second law also demonstrates that there is an un-negotiable qualitative change in the universe. It bestows society with a non-arbitrary sense of economic value. It states that in every irreversible transaction, such as mining for precious metals or contaminating the ocean depths, quality (exergy) is lost and that it is lost forever [11]. It provides irrefutable evidence that we are transgressing planetary boundaries [12] and that with every subsequent dig for more gold, more oil and more stuff, we are simply accelerating towards our own unvirtuous demise.

The encroachment of human activity on every corner of the globe is perhaps best seen through the lens of material consumption. Just sixty years ago relatively few elements were used widely to support most applications. Fast forward until today and, in the name of enhanced performance, complex mixtures of up to two-thirds of the periodic table have become the norm as our “needs” have proliferated [13,14].

Our physical limits, meanwhile, haven’t changed; we still inhabit a small planet and whilst are always able to create more money (making our obsession with it all the more incongruous), we cannot create more space. Sure, techno-optimists having silenced Malthus’ [15] alarmist predictions will point to our ability to overcome nature’s limits but what they are really demonstrating to us is our ability to re-shape nature, to crush her, in order to make, not more space per se but more space for us. That aside, population bombs are a moot point, if not a red herring.

Population growth is not a problem when compared to the population’s demand for growth. The richest citizens of the 21st century want more interesting materials to fulfil and excite them. Some, if Ray Kurweil’s dream is anything to go by, look to materials to advance their abilities beyond their humanity and even beyond the grave [9, 16]. These Homo Deus request deeper holes and extended plots to commemorate their latest success via towering monuments and testaments (skyscrapers, pen houses, etc.) to their wealth, extravagance and sense of self-importance.

To give some perspective on the matter, material stock, which includes buildings, increased 23-fold from 1900 to 2010, in line with GDP (27-fold) over the same period whilst the amount of primary material input used to build up or renew stocks rose from 1 Gt/year to 36 Gt/year [17]. These figures, if nothing else, reflect the considerable effort and resource society expends to build, enlarge and maintain what they already have. They demonstrate that Kahneman et al. [18]’s microeconomic behavioural study on endowment effect and loss aversion is prevalent at all levels and that a Stoic perspective on loss is very much needed to re-address the balance:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are. If you have a favourite cup or mug, say that it is not your favourite, then when it breaks you won’t be disturbed. – Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Ch 3. [19,20]

Changing the way we view materials

Practicing un-attachment when things break (or die) in order to curb the desire to hang onto what is lost or what has now passed, is only one piece of the sustainable materials puzzle. We ought to, as stoics and as members of society at large, deeply and deliberately consider the nature of the materials, with regards to how their extraction, manufacture, use and disposal affects the world around us. We should delve into the nature of our individual and collective desires which lead to the existence of products in the first place.

Under capitalism and the supply and demand function, something is produced as soon as there demand for it, at a price agreeable to both the producer and consumer. This price does of course fluctuate and is a driver for a more efficient means of production in order to make the product more competitive. Yet, as an academic devoted to sustainable energy and materials, I am far from satisfied with the so-called law of supply and demand. Firstly, because, unlike the aforementioned Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Motion, it is not a law at all (economists borrowed from Physics to enhance the credibility of their theories, which they turned into laws). It is not a law precisely because it is not subject to a physical limit (i.e. the true nature of things) but rather the whims of the consumer and the marketing expertise of the producer who tells the consumer that what they sell is far from a preferred indifferent but an absolute necessity.

Importantly and despite claims to the contrary, neither material consumption nor material efficiency tell us what materials are destined for nor whether their production is beneficial. This is because consumerism or market values, including the price mechanism, tell us nothing as to the service materials provide. They can’t answer the harder and more important questions of; “How can materials provide individuals with what they really (or think they) want?” “How should materials be used to support societal goals and aspirations?” and “Besides profit, why should we make this product?”

In my team’s and I research, we realised that a concept was needed to move even the hardened members of sustainability community to do what students of Stoicism put into practice daily: ascertaining the nature of a thing and the virtue of possessing (producing) it. We put together a (hopefully) complete list of material services (Figure 1) and defined them as “Those benefits that materials contribute to societal wellbeing, through fuels and products (regardless of whether or not they are supplied by the market) when they are put to proper use”.

Figure 1. Material services at a glance. Note: Some services can be placed in more than one category depending on the exact nature of the service provided * Health aids include glasses, wheel chairs, etc [14].

From Theory to Practice

Sustainable theory is one thing, putting it into practice is much better. It is also much more in line with Stoicism:

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?  – Epictetus, Discourses I, 29.35

The nature of materials and material services, as opposed to energy, which is another major concern within the sustainability discourse, is that whilst one cannot distinguish one kWh from another or dictate energy policy from a non-political occupation, everyone regardless of societal position has the ability to choose what they put in their mouth or upon their back. Both clothing and food choices are to be made daily and although we may not think about it, they are statements (overtly made or otherwise) of who we are and what we value.

Let’s take vegetarianism as an example of food as a material service. When we abstain from meat, we are also turning away from mass produced meat products, which in all instances cause suffering (the animal is slaughtered against its will) and in more than enough cases involve cramped conditions and the destruction of familiar/communal animal ties (the young are forcibly separated from their mother and herd). We are likewise making a statement about the unacceptability of deforestation and environmental activist murders by unscrupulous ranchers in Latin America [21,22]. We are rejecting the use of agricultural land to feed animals when we can more efficiently use that same land area for crops that we eat directly and thus feed more people with less waste.

In abstaining or curbing meat we are also be taking a stand against shady industry practices that are detrimental to our health (one just needs to think back to the outbreak of mad cow disease and the reasons behind it) or be thinking about the effect that animal fat has on our arteries and our wellbeing generally. Certainly, Stoic thought lends itself well to plant-based diets as Seneca, Rufus and this Modern Stoicism article testifies.

That said vegetarianism, or even veganism, isn’t a blanket solution of course. There are some key ethical concerns to be navigated when it comes to mass soya production, some of which is undertaken in vulnerable areas and has led to Brazilian rainforest encroachment and devastation in a similar way to beef cattle [23]. There is also the issue of genetically modified soya crops. One thus should also look at the origin of soya (Italy is a key producer, for example) to ensure that one particular set of poor behaviour is not simply replaced by another.

Clothing is another material service which requires some thought. Both slave and child labour are unacceptable side effects of the cheap throw-away fashion industry. Fair trade cooperative sourcing provides one way to steer clear of such practices as does paying special attention to labels or, in the absence of a suitable alternative, simply buying less.  Research into smaller grassroot initiatives, such as the British based The Hemp Trading Company (THTC), is also a way to challenge the mass produced fashion label and the indiscriminate chemical spraying of cotton fields to devastating social and environmental effect.

In the end, Stoicism may not provide specific answers but it does provide a philosophical framework to do more than scratch at the surface, in search for virtue and a truer understanding of the nature of things. And that is precisely what we need to arrive at to move the sustainability discourse forward.



  1. Schandl, H., Fischer‐Kowalski, M., West, J., Giljum, S., Dittrich, M., Eisenmenger, N., … & Krausmann, F. (2017). Global material flows and resource productivity: forty years of evidence. Journal of Industrial Ecology.
  2. Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Gałuszka, A., … & Jeandel, C. (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science351(6269), aad2622.
  3. Harari, Y. N., & Perkins, D. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (p. 443). London: Harvill Secker.
  4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016)
  5. United Nations (2015) Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. Available online:
  6. Raworth, K. (2014) Will these Sustainable Development Goals Get us into the Doughnut? In From Poverty to Power; Green, D., Ed.; Oxfam: Oxford, UK; Volume 2014.
  7. Wiedmann, T. O., Schandl, H., Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Suh, S., West, J., & Kanemoto, K. (2015). The material footprint of nations.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(20), 6271-6276.
  8. Burke, P. J., Shahiduzzaman, M., & Stern, D. I. (2015). Carbon dioxide emissions in the short run: The rate and sources of economic growth matter.Global Environmental Change33, 109-121.
  9. Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a Stoic. Hachette Book Group, p 73
  10. Becker, L. C. (2017). A new stoicism. Princeton University Press.
  11. Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1971). The law of entropy and the economic process. Harvard University Press.
  12. Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … & Folke, C. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855.
  13. National Research Council. (2012). Science for environmental protection: the road ahead. National Academies Press.
  14. Carmona, L. G., Whiting, K., Carrasco, A., Sousa, T., & Domingos, T. (2017). Material Services with Both Eyes Wide Open. Sustainability, 9(9), 1508.
  15. Malthus, T. R. (1888). An essay on the principle of population: or, A view of its past and present effects on human happiness. Reeves & Turner.
  16. Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. Random House.
  17. Krausmann, F., Wiedenhofer, D., Lauk, C., Haas, W., Tanikawa, H., Fishman, T., … & Haberl, H. (2017). Global socioeconomic material stocks rise 23-fold over the 20th century and require half of annual resource use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(8), 1880-1885.
  18. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives, 5(1), 193-206.
  19. Fieser, J (1996) English translation of the Enchiridion
  20. Arieti, J. A. (2005). Philosophy in the ancient world: An introduction. Rowman & Littlefield.
  21. Global Witness (2016) On dangerous ground
  22. Global Witness (2017) Defenders of the Earth, Global killings of land and environmental defenders in 2016. United Kingdom
  23. Rausch, L. L., & Gibbs, H. K. (2016). Property arrangements and soy governance in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso: Implications for deforestation-free production. Land, 5(2), 7.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subject is sustainable energy and materials. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting

“Stoicism and Illness” and “Stoic Resilience versus Stoic Virtue” by Carmelo Di Maria

This post provides a summary of Carmelo Di Maria’s presentations at the London STOICON-X 2017 conference.  This is the second in our series of posts drawn from Stoicon and the Stoicon-X conferences this year.

For over a year now I have been running a Stoicism group in London called “London Stoics” (you can find us on Facebook) and I am also a member of the Resources Committee within the Stoic Fellowship. About three years ago I came across Stoicism after a sentimental crisis. I was taken by the whole philosophy but two of the things which most struck me were: one, the idea that you create your own reality (“People are not upset by things but by the judgements they have about things” is the famous maxim by Epictetus) and two, the concept of the ‘indifferents’.

The first aspect was familiar to me. I was already a fan of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and pretty much skilled at most cognitive distortions: over-generalizations, black and white thinking, jumping to conclusions, mind reading. I also loved the idea of ‘reframing’, trying to look at something from a different perspective in order to change your ensuing feelings and behaviour. The second aspect that took my fancy, illness seen as an indifferent, constituted in a way yet another example of reframing, but this time one of Herculean proportions, I thought.

As a person living with a chronic condition, it was in particular the idea of illness as an indifferent that struck a chord with me. In Italy when you’re being affected by a major problem, in common parlance people will tell you: “As long as you’re healthy, you’re ok”, in order to cheer you up. As if health was the supreme good. But the Stoics were telling me another story – the supreme good in life is ‘virtue’ and that was definitely within my reach, unlike health. Illness stopped being this bogeyman that weighed me down and made me feel less than ‘healthy’ people. I immediately felt liberated and self-empowered, I was not a ‘victim’ of personal circumstances anymore.

So I decided to write an article about my experience of Stoicism and the relationship between the philosophy and illness and I sent it to Patrick Usher, who was at the time the editor of the Stoicism Today blog. Patrick went on to publish it on the blog (you can find it as “Stoic Resilience in the Face of Illness“) and also told me my piece would be included in a collection of articles from both academics and non-academics called Stoicism Today: Selected writings, vol. 2.

Fast forward two years.  I decided to make a presentation highlighting the same relationship between Stoicism and illness, this time with the intent of sharing my experience with other people living with chronic conditions (PLCC), to see whether anyone could gain any benefit out of the philosophy, just like I did. I also thought that the London Stoicon X 2017 event would be a brilliant opportunity for a test run and for some feedback from a knowledgeable audience.

Hopefully there is a bit for everyone in this presentation regardless of health status, even for those who are not living with a chronic condition like HIV, cancer, diabetes, MS… you name it. With the exception of a few quotes from the Stoic literature which specifically refer to illness, the rest can be easily interchangeable with any major difficulty people find themselves in – big financial loss, severe injury, disability, loss of a partner/child/relative.

In the overview I have identified all those aspects of Stoicism which can offer a person with a chronic condition a fresh perspective on life and a renewed sense of self-esteem, strength, resilience and pride, not to mention what is the ultimate goal for a Stoic, ‘Virtue’.

Overview of my presentation:

  • Stoicism as a philosophy of resilience
  •  Illness as an Indifferent
  • Death as an indifferent
  • Shortness of Life as an Indifferent
  • Post-Traumatic Growth
  • Excellence of Character

The first item in the presentation points to the CBT aspect of Stoicism, if you like – the way that the philosophy shifts the focus from one aspect of reality to another, creating a whole different ball game. It does not define the philosophy in its entirety – and it would be a reductionist approach and a disservice to a whole philosophical system such as Stoicism to say otherwise – but it’s nonetheless one of the popular and characteristic aspects of it.

“Illness as an indifferent” – according to Stoicism a person is not confined or constricted by her health condition, i.e. her health condition does not define her as a person, but rather it is only one aspect of it and an ‘indifferent’ one at that. To paraphrase Epictetus, her illness affects her body, but not her ‘choice’, not her ability to pursue ‘virtue’.

“Death as an Indifferent” and “Shortness of Life as an Indifferent” follow the same Stoic reasoning around our locus of control and the central if not superlative quality of ‘virtue’. They are both relevant to PLCC in that the latter may have a keener sense of the transiency of life and of their own mortality.

“Post-Traumatic Growth” (PTG) is the idea that after a trauma like acquiring an illness or going through some other major crisis (especially if it entails a brush with mortality), it’s not all loss or doom and gloom, but you can actually gain something out of it – the person experiences some sort of growth, in terms of psychological strength (“what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”, as the saying goes), of confidence, maturity, spirituality, a keener sense of gratitude and an ability to enjoy life more.

The Stoics didn’t define it like that obviously, this is a modern coinage, but often refer to this concept, sometimes through the use of beautiful metaphors. Hercules is also referenced, within the Stoic literature, as an epitome of strength and resilience in the face of adverse circumstances. It was important for me to talk about PTG because even when I attended in the past workshops specifically aimed at PLCC and whose goal was to help people manage their condition, this was a concept that was never explored.

In a presentation about Stoicism, I could not help but mention the ultimate goal for Stoics – pursuing “virtue” or “excellence of character”. I reckon that a chronic condition may act as a spur to pursue virtue thanks to that heightened sense of mortality I referred to earlier. Especially if a person living with a chronic condition embraces a philosophy of life like Stoicism, he will be more keen to make every day count, to get his priorities right, to lead a life of purpose and strive for excellence of character.

Finally, I should mention that I was also given the opportunity to lead a workshop in the afternoon which I entitled “Stoic Resilience versus Stoic Virtue”. The reason I picked that title is that I found many quotes within the Stoic literature which express the idea that a person who endures or overcomes a difficult situation displays virtue, and also that challenges are seen as an opportunity to achieve virtue (“Calamitas virtutis occasio est”, Seneca says in his essay On Providence).

The problem is that it’s a virtue that is talked about mainly in terms of patience, resilience, strength, endurance (generally qualities which we would list under the cardinal virtue of courage). And of course this is only one aspect of the multi-faceted notion of “virtue” which also includes temperance, wisdom, and justice. So during the afternoon discussion, my idea was to elicit the difference between these two different aspects of the Stoic virtue, unravel the links between them, and perhaps find out ways in which life challenges can not only lead a person to display virtue in the sense of resilience but also lead to virtue intended in its more complex meaning.

Just to give you a few examples of what I mean, PLCC may have used all sorts of support services in their lives, ranging from medical care to psychosocial support, complementary therapies and friends & family, therefore chances are that they become aware of the great help they received in the way of competence, professionalism, empathy, patience, understanding etc. They understand the value of this help and may be inclined to help other people themselves in any way they can, developing this way the virtue of justice. Some PLCC, for example, often speak of wanting to get into volunteering as a way to “give back”.

PLCC may be likely to internalise the Serenity Prayer and make a difference between the things they can’t control (like their health status) and those they can (like their diet, level of fitness, their mental health etc), thus developing ‘wisdom’. They may have learnt to curb their irrational desire to be other than what they are and learnt to accept their health condition, coming to terms with the fact that they are ill (temperance).

The same way a notion of health which is not holistic and is purely based on the integrity of the body is fragmentary and insufficient, glorifying the aspect of fortitude, in isolation, and to the detriment of the other virtues, especially justice (when we talk about illness or any other sphere of human life for that matter) may be misleading and a fallacy. Even Marcus Aurelius, himself struggling with a chronic illness all his life, was aware that he owed much to relatives and mentors for the shaping of his character but at the same time contributed much to the education of future generations through his own reflections and the example of his own life.

At the end of the day one of the best ways to bring about self-healing, whether it’s an illness or some other problem, is to break free from the shackles of our self-absorption, elevate ourselves and have a good look around, finally integrating ourselves into a much bigger picture both in terms of time and space, just like we do in the “view from above”. It’s a brilliant practice which encourages to abandon the illusory idea of a being a discreet entity and become part of the whole instead. After all “to heal” means “to make whole”.

Carmelo Di Maria lives in London where he works as a TV listings writer. He’s interested in LGBT/human rights, secularism, stress management and mindfulness. For the past year he has been running the London Stoics group. One day he hopes to be able to offer a blend of mindfulness and Stoic reflective meditations to people with chronic health conditions.

Happy Families: A Stoic Guide to Family Relationships by Brittany Polat

“All happy families are alike,” wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read this line as a teenager, I couldn’t understand what Tolstoy meant. How could there be many kinds of unhappiness, but only one kind of happiness? Don’t happy families have their own unique set of circumstances and characteristics, just like everyone else? In the novel he seemed to be saying that happiness is dull and uninteresting. It didn’t really make sense.

But as the years have rolled on, I’ve started to understand his point. Trying to create my own version of a happy family has made me think about what is absolutely required for harmonious relationships: respect, responsibility, commitment, compromise. Maybe this is what Tolstoy meant? Not that happy families actually do everything the same way, but that they have certain habits of mind that let them laugh, understand, and be comfortable with each other?

Stoicism throws a beautiful new light over the puzzle of family happiness. Of course there are secrets to a happy family–they are called the disciplines of desire, action, and assent. All the virtues that Stoicism develops in a person are also necessary for family harmony. And just as virtue can lead us to eudaimonia as individuals, a family might be called “a happy family” if its members have learned to be reflexively kind, wise, forgiving, and fair.

Granted, most happy families in the world don’t use Stoic terminology to describe their actions. They might not be able to clearly articulate how and why they get along so well, or they might use words from other cultural or religious traditions. But if you really examined their behavior, I’m guessing you would find these same virtues at the root of their contentment.

So how do we cultivate harmonious family relationships? This task is somewhat different from being a virtuous individual, because we clearly do not control our family members. We do not choose our relatives (except our spouses or partners), and most of what they do is outside of our control. Unlike personal virtue, family harmony is a preferred indifferent, albeit an important and highly preferred indifferent. So as we work toward family happiness, we have to remember that we can only do so much. Like the Stoic archer, we can aim for a happy family, but we cannot guarantee the outcome of our efforts.

What we can do is focus on our own contributions to family harmony. We can apply wisdom, fairness, generosity, and self-control to all our interactions with our loved ones. No matter what our family members do, or how they respond to our good intentions, we can still play our part well. Stoicism gives us all the mental tools we need to take a patient, rational, loving approach to our most important relationships.

With that in mind, here is a summary of (in my opinion) the most important Stoic advice on relationships. It revolves around three main points: amathia, emotional altruism, and your role in the family. If you genuinely put all these techniques into practice, you will be able to say that at least one member of your family (yourself) is truly happy with your efforts.



Epictetus talks a lot about how no one tries to be wrong, but most people are simply ignorant of the right way to be happy. Everyone acts in the way that seems best to her or him. The problem is, most people think that their happiness lies in serving their own narrow self-interest. They might believe they are accomplishing their own best interest by pursuing external goods or shoring up their own egos. They don’t understand that true happiness only results from treating other people with fairness and kindness.

As Massimo Pigliucci points out in How to Be a Stoic, there is even a label for this type of un-wisdom: amathia. He defines it as “the opposite of wisdom, a kind of dis-knowledge of how to deal with other human beings” (p. 116). And we don’t need to limit this word just to people committing horrible crimes (Medea killing her children, for example). It also explains the petty cruelties that people inflict on each other in everyday relationships. Fighting, resentment, defending your own turf, intentionally misunderstanding, trying to control other people, choosing to take unnecessary offense. Even people who love each other often display this dis-knowledge of how to get along. It is all too human. In fact, this way of relating to others makes sense if you hold the mistaken belief that happiness lies in defending your own ego.

Because such people are incapacitated by their blindness, says Epictetus, we should pity them rather than resent or despise them. Especially when it comes to our most important relationships in life, we should try to understand rather than accuse. Which leads to the second important reminder…


Emotional Altruism

In his discussion on friendship, Epictetus tells us that a Stoic “will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance” (2.22, 36). In discussing our relationships with others, he reminds us again that we shouldn’t be harsh with anyone, because people err against their will.

Marcus Aurelius, who also knew a thing or two about putting up with unpleasant people, goes further and says that we should treat others with genuine goodness, “with affection, and a heart free from bitterness.” (11. 18, 18). This is very, very hard to do. But if you truly internalize the Stoic position on virtue, then it becomes easier to stop defending your own position in an argument and start supporting your family member.

We should also remember that backing down from an unnecessary argument, or showing benevolence in other ways, does not make us weak or wrong. It seems to me that some people mistakenly believe that emotional generosity is equivalent to weakness or vulnerability. In fact, the opposite is true: “It is not anger that is manly, but gentleness and delicacy. It is because they are more human that they are more manly; they possess more strength, more nerve, and more virility” (Meditation 11. 18, 21). Strength (which obviously applies equally to women and men, despite Marcus’ identification with manliness) lies in wisdom and justice, while weakness lies in pettiness and selfishness.


Remember Your Role

We no longer live in the patriarchal society of ancient Rome (thank goodness!), so some Stoic advice on social roles does not apply to 21st century relationships. But some of it does. The underlying message is as relevant as ever: your mother or sister may mistreat you, but you should still remain a good brother or son to them. Other people, even your closest family members, cannot truly injure you. Your brother could steal your inheritance or your father could forbid you from studying philosophy, but you must still behave appropriately toward them. It is better to be the person wronged than the one who is wronging others.

Of course, things can get complicated if you’re not sure exactly what your role is. Many of us live in societies that have upended traditional social roles, which is mostly a very good thing. However, it can be a bit confusing to figure out how much deference you owe to your parents, or exactly what to expect from your own kids. So if you are a Stoic living in a non-traditional society, you’ll have to think carefully about your role in the family.

We should always approach our relationships with good-heartedness. But the way we apply our understanding will be different depending on the specific relationship in question. So let’s take a look at some of our primary family relationships and think about what a Stoic approach might be. Obviously, these are just some general observations, which might not apply to every family and every situation. (Contra Tolstoy, every family is different, even happy ones!)

The lens I’d like to use for this examination is one of Marcus’ maxims: “People were made for one another. So either instruct them or put up with them” (8.59). If you are fortunate enough to know the source of eudaimonia–virtue–then you can try to teach others. Or you can use your wisdom to accept them the way they are. But when do you try to teach, and when do you just accept?

The answer depends on many factors, from your position within the family to individual personalities and situations. But I would like to suggest that we can have a default answer to this question, which should guide our behavior most of the time. Here are some suggestions for how you might consider approaching three important family relationships.

Your parents (and other elders): Put up with them. Has anyone ever been allowed to instruct their parents in life? These days, we are no longer expected to “obey” our parents (at least, not after we move out of their house!). But even if our relationships today are more casual, we should still respect our parents’ position, and the love and care they have given us over time. Do you have to do what they ask all the time? Of course not. But when you disagree, disagree with respect.

Musonius Rufus gives excellent advice on this topic. In his lecture on whether parents must be obeyed in all things, he says that the dutiful son “obeys his parents when he willingly follows the good advice they give; and when they don’t give good advice, I say that he is nevertheless obeying his parents when he does what he should” (Lecture 16). His rationale is that all parents want what is best for their children, even if perhaps they do not actually know what is best. “Consequently, anyone who does what is appropriate and beneficial is doing what his parents want.” Continuing with this reasoning, Musonius says it’s fine to refuse to do something inappropriate that your parents ask you to do (or to do something appropriate that they forbid you from doing), because you are doing it out of goodness.

But like all forms of virtue, it’s about your motivation. You should make sure that you are acting virtuously, not out of selfishness or a desire to prove a point. And for all the unimportant things, try to put up with your parents’ quirks and flaws. (Remember amathia and emotional altruism.) Don’t you think you owe them that much?

Your significant other (and siblings): Instruct them and put up with them. Your life partner is your peer, so you are in a position to influence her or him for the better. If you show emotional generosity, your partner is much more likely to do the same. (If your partner is violent, abusive, or otherwise unethical, then of course you should take more extreme action.) But for all those run-of-the-mill strains on your relationship, it’s very helpful to take Marcus’ advice to heart. “If he is wrong, instruct him to that effect with benevolence, and show him what he has overlooked. If you do not succeed, then be mad at yourself [for not being persuasive enough]; or rather not even at yourself” (10.4).

In other words, try to bring your partner around to your way of seeing by explaining, persuading, and truly living out your beliefs. If that doesn’t work, don’t get angry. It’s not his fault that he hasn’t yet learned the right way to be happy. Stay patient and hold up your side of the relationship by being the best partner you can be. Remember that everything outside of virtue is indifferent. Those little things your partner does that drive you crazy are probably within the realm of indifferents.

However, do not use Stoicism as an excuse to stay in a toxic relationship. Remember that virtue requires courage, so if you need to end it, then be courageous about it. You can exit virtuously. You can practice wisdom and courage in any situation.

Your children: Instruct them. This one seems obvious. You have more influence over your kids than over anyone else in the world. What is less obvious is how to balance instruction with acceptance. Since you do not actually control your child, you can only do so much to mold her behavior. After you’ve done what you can, you still have to accept her imperfections. (And hope that, when she grows up, she accepts yours!)


Remember, the suggestions here are just basic guidelines and may not fit every family or situation. You have to use your wisdom to apply Stoic advice in real life. Just because your default mode of dealing with your parents is to put up with them, that doesn’t mean it will always be appropriate to accept what they do. There may be times when it’s better to try to instruct them. But if you decide to instruct them, you’d better have a very good reason.

With all that in mind, maybe we can revise Tolstoy’s quote to fit a Stoic perspective on relationships: All happy family members know how to relate wisely to each other, but each happy family can still be happy in its own way. This version might be much less poetic than Tolstoy’s, but I think it’s a good characterization of what to aim for in our own families. So as you sit down with your loved ones over the holidays–or any other time of year-remember that we were made for one another. We owe it to our families to at least aim for happiness.


Brittany Polat practices Stoicism daily with her three young children and describes her experiences at Her book on Stoic parenting, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, is scheduled to appear in 2018.

Stoic Week 2017 Report (part 1) Demographics by Tim LeBon

This report gives the demographics for Stoic Week 2017 which took place between Monday October 16 – Sunday October 22. Future reports will follow providing analysis of how taking part affected well-being and how being Stoic is associated with well-being.

The headlines are:

  • Over 43% of respondents are from USA, Europe (including UK) comprising 34%. Within Europe, more were from outside UK (19%) than in the UK (15%). Future questionnaires should perhaps capture individual countries as it would be useful to know whether there is a core of Stoics in, say Copenhagen or Oslo or Madrid.
  • As in previous years, the vast majority of respondents have never participated in Stoic week before. So although a few people always ask us to change the workbook significantly, for most people this is not at all important.
  • The ratio of males to females was 65% to 34%. This is similar to previous years and as in previous years perhaps we need to consider whether this ratio just needs to be accepted or whether there is something that can be done to make Stoicism more appealing to females.
  • More people completed the questionnaires compared to last year (2860 up from 1798). There was at the same time about a large increase in the number people taking part in Stoic Week. Including those who both did and did not complete questionnaires, about 7000 people registered for Stoic Week in 2017. Stoicism seems to be getting more and more popular.

Below are 5 tables summarising all the facts and figures and 2016 and 2015 comparisons

Gender Total 2017% 2016 % 2015 %
Male 1839 65 66 65
Female 972 34 33 34
Decline to state 26 1 1 1
Other 14 0.5

Table 1: Stoic Week 2017 by gender


Age Total 2017% 2016% 2015 %
over 55 482 17 13 17
46-55 508 18 17 18
36-45 637 22 21 23
26-35  757 27 25 25
18-25 429 15 22 16
Under 18 41 1 1 2

Table 2: Stoic Week 2017 by age


Location Total %  2016  % 2015 %
USA 1233 43 43 42
Australasia  141 5 5 5
Canada 274 10 12 16
Europe (outside UK)) 529 19 17 15
UK 425 15 14 17
Africa 27 1 1 1
Asia 84 3 3 2
South & Central America 69 2 3 1
Other 56 2 2 2

 Table 3: Stoic Week 2017 by geographic location


Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Total  




2015 %
0 2235 79 77 78
1 370 13 14 16
2 148 5 6 4
3 50 2 3 2
4 (or more) 36 1 1 0

Table 4: Stoic Week 2017 : Previous participation


Knowledge of Stoicism Total %  2016   % 2015 %
None 261 9 11 13
Novice 865 30 33 32
I know a bit  1170 41 39 38
I know quite a bit but not an expert 550 19 16 16
Expert 13 0.5 1 1

Table 5: Stoic Week 2017 : Self-rating of knowledge of Stoicism

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  His website is