Stoic Week 2017 Report (part 2) by Tim Lebon

A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been documented in previous Stoic Week reports.   This year the emphasis has shifted to quantifying the relationship between Stoicism and positive character traits. To this end we asked the thousands of people who took part in Stoic Week to complete the CIVIC character scale in addition to the four scales previously used.

2860 people filled in questionnaires measuring degree of Stoicism (SABS 3.0), Life Satisfaction, Positive and Negative Emotions and Flourishing. In addition, 820 people filled in the CIVIC questionnaire which gave us a large enough sample to draw meaningful conclusions.

This article excerpts from the findings derived from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week. Upcoming reports will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3), summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research.

If you’d like to read the full 27-page version of the Stoic Week 2017 report (part 2), you can click here to download the report.

Stoicism and Positive Character Traits

If you are a Stoic, you would certainly hope that there is a strong relationship between being a Stoic and having positive character traits. For the Stoics, eudaimonia is based on possessing core positive character traits called “virtues”, particularly the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and self-control (or moderation).

If you are a Stoic you might well also expect there to be a strong relationship between being Stoic and having the virtues. However, to my knowledge this is the first time anyone has tried to show that this is actually the case.

We chose to use the CIVIC scale (discussed in the full report) for our research this year and are grateful to its co-author, Vincent Ng for his co-operation and assistance. The CIVIC Scale identifies 29 positive character traits (similar to Peterson and Seligman’’s “strengths”) and 8 character cores (similar to virtues).

Before you go any further, please take a moment to consider these 3 questions.

  1. How many of these 29 character traits do you think are positively associated with Stoicism?
  2. Which of these 29 traits do you think is most positively associated with Stoicism?
  3. Which of the 29 traits do you think is most negatively associated with Stoicism?

I asked a number of experts on Stoicism these 3 questions. The consensus was as follows:-

  1. Most if not all of these character traits will be positively associated with Stoicism.
  2. Emotional Awareness is likely to be most positively associated with Stoicism. Fairness, Self-Control, Perspective-Taking, Gratitude, Bravery, Meaning/purpose and Persistence should also feature well.
  3. Probably none are negatively related to Stoicism, though perhaps spirituality and humour might not be so closely linked as others.

In examining the data from Stoic Week, we found that

  1. All of 29 positive character traits in CIVIC are positively associated with Stoicism
  2. Zest is the character trait most positively associated with Stoicism
  3. Trick question, they are all positively associated! Humour is the least positively associated, but note that even the lowest ranking trait is still positively associated. This means that the caricature of the Stoic as dour and humourless is not supported. The more Stoic you are, the more humorous you are likely to be.

Stoic “Zest”?

So the Stoic experts got it right, mostly. . . . Stoics are likely to possess more than the average person of all of these positive traits, and emotional awareness is amongst those most highly correlated with being Stoic.  However none of the experts suggested “zest” would be strongly associated with Stoicism. This finding merits closer examination.

What exactly is meant by  “zest”? The dictionary defines zest as “great enthusiasm and energy”. The CIVIC scale identifies zestful individuals using these 12 questions or prompts:

  • I typically look forward to each new day.
  • I feel excited to start each day.
  • I am brimming with excitement about life.
  • I always look forward to what the day brings.
  • I have great enthusiasm for life.
  • I eagerly anticipate each day’s activities.
  • I try to live each day to the fullest.
  • I typically feel ready to take on what life has in store for me.
  • I hardly ever feel half-hearted about my activities.
  • I typically don’t dread starting my daily activities.
  • I generally approach my daily activities with energy.
  • I have enthusiasm for my daily activities.

These seem to capture very well both enthusiasm and energy, perhaps with a touch of joy and resilience thrown into the mix. Significantly, zest has been identified as one of the more important character traits, being positively associated with life satisfaction, positive emotion, engagement and flow and meaning (LeBon (2014), p. 71).

We have, of course, identified a correlation, rather than a causal connection, so we cannot say whether being Stoic causes great enthusiasm and energy, or vice-versa, or perhaps something else causes both Stoicism and zest. The next report, on the impact of Stoic week, may shed some light on whether Stoicism plays a causal role in increasing zest. If so, this would be a significant and novel finding.

Stoicism and the Virtues

CIVIC also measures 8 broader character qualities, which they call “character cores”, which have a number of constituent character traits.

Some of these CIVIC character cores clearly bear some resemblance to the Stoic cardinal virtues, though this resemblance should not be overstated. All of these character cores were found to be quite strongly and positively with Stoicism

Rank CIVIC Character Core Association with Stoicism
1 EMPATHY 0.51

Stoicism, then appears strongly positively associated with each positive character traits as well as every broader character cores (virtue). There remains the question of whether Stoicism is strongly linked with virtues in general.

A correlation coefficient of .6 was found to exist between SABS scores (measuring the degree of Stoicism) and an overall measure of character or virtue (as measured by adding up a participant’s CIVIC item scores). This compares favourably with the  correlation coefficients for life satisfaction, emotions and flourishing, which in past years have been found to be .37, .42 and .46 respectively.

Stoicism and Well-Being

The relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous reports. This section summarises the findings and answers questions that interested readers are likely to ask.

Q: In the past you’ve found significant correlations between Stoicism (as measured by SABS) and the various well-being measures. Has this been replicated?

A: Yes, indeed it has.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL) Average well-being
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS 0.47 (.46) 0.43 (.42) 0.36 (.37) 0.48 (.42)

Table 6 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales

Table 6 above gives the overall correlations between total SABS scores and the various well-being scales (2016 results are in brackets). This result has now been replicated with large samples over 4 years.

Q: OK, so that looks like a solid finding, at least for the sort of people who take part in Stoic Week.  Stoics are still happy. I remember that in previous years you also listed how Stoicism was associated with particular emotions, as measured in the SPANE scale. What were these results this year?

A: As in 2016, there is a significant positive association between Stoicism and each positive emotion and a negative correlation between every negative emotion and Stoicism. There is some variation between this year and last in terms of the relative size of the correlation for each emotion, so we should not be too confident in saying which emotions are most associated with Stoicism, though it seems pretty clear that the association is large for contentment and relatively small for fear.

Q:  All this talk of correlation coefficients is a bit confusing for me. Can you just tell me how much difference it makes to my happiness whether I am Stoic or not?

A: Remember that these findings do not necessarily imply causation, so we can’t say that being more Stoic makes you more happy. However we can look at the group of people who are in the top and bottom 10% in terms of Stoicism and compare their well-being scores on the various scales.  

Q: Last year you found quite a strong relationship between age and Stoicism – the under 18s were by far the least Stoic and Stoicism increased gradually with age, with the over-55s being the most Stoic. Has this been replicated?

A:  This relationship has been repeated in 2017, although the under 18s are not quite as un-Stoic as they were last year, as illustrated in Table 9 below.

This year we also looked at the average well-being of each age group. A similar pattern emerges, with the over-55s being the happiest and the under 18s being the least happy.

Q:  Last year the USA proved to be the most Stoic and the UK least. Is this still true in 2017?

A: Once again the Americas proved to be the most Stoic, though (admittedly from a small sample) South America took over No. 1 spot from USA.  The UK and Europe is a few points behind. To put this into context, the difference between regions is not that great, as shown in table 10.

Region Average SABS score 2016 Comparison % Average well-being
South America 170 165 2 23
USA 166 166 44 22
Canada 165 164 10 23
Australia 166 161 5 23
Europe 162 162 19 22
Africa 162 161 1 21
UK 161 159 15 22
Asia 159 160 3 20

 Table 10: Relationship between geographic region and degree of Stoicism

Q: Have gender differences changed at all?

A: Data from 2016 suggested that men were marginally more Stoic, averaging 164.5 on the SABS scale as opposed to 161.5 for women. In 2016 this gap of 3 points had reduced to 2 – the figures in 2017 were 165 and 163 respectively

Q: Finally, in the past you’ve told provided a big table suggestive of the “active ingredients” of Stoicism. Did you do that again?

A: Yes, the full details are in Appendix E.  These are the most active Stoic ingredients in terms of correlation with average well-being.


These findings replicate previous research about the relationship between Stoicism, life satisfaction, flourishing and the emotions. For the first time we can also say that there is evidence to support the view that Stoicism is associated with virtues and positive character traits, as measured on a validated contemporary scale, the CIVIC.  A surprising, but very positive, result is that zest turns out to be the character trait most associated with being Stoic.

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

From The Three Petaled Rose by Ronald Pies

This post is a summary of Dr. Ronald Pies’ talk at the STOICON 2017 conference.

My book, The Three-Petalled Rose, attempts an analysis and synthesis of three great spiritual traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I have called this synthesis “JuBuSto.” This was also the topic of my presentation in Toronto this past Fall. I began my book by proposing that “…the synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism can create a healthy, fulfilled and flourishing life.” Here, I review the main themes explored in my book and lecture.

First, I discussed a theme common to all three traditions; namely, that our happiness and fulfillment in life is critically dependent on the quality of our thinking.  I suggested that, in effect, we create our own happiness by thinking “good” thoughts– and create our own misery by filling our minds with “bad” thoughts.  More specifically, Judaism emphasizes rational understanding, without which we are spiritually and emotionally “lost”. Thus, I cited the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Elazar that,  “…any person who lacks understanding eventually goes into exile…” Similarly, the Buddhist text, the Dhammapada teaches us that “we are what we think…..with our thoughts we make the world.”  I also cited the Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah (1918-92) as saying,

We want to be free of suffering…but still we suffer. Why is this? It’s because of wrong thinking. If our thinking is in harmony with the way things are, we will have well-being.

In the Stoic tradition, too,  pride of place is given to thinking clearly.  Epictetus reminds us that

It is not he who gives abuse….who offends us; but the view that we take of these things as insulting or hurtful…” and urges us “….not to be bewildered by appearances.

Moreover, all three spiritual paths emphasize that we often sabotage our chances for living the “good life” through our own distorted thinking. Echoing the views of many modern cognitive-behavioral therapists, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Gelberman tells us that, “Of all the tyrants in the world, our own attitudes are the fiercest warlords.”

Similarly, the Buddhist monk, Chagdud Tulku teaches that

Hell is the reflection of [the] mind’s delusion, of angry thoughts and intentions and the harmful words and actions they produce.

He adds—once again sounding much like our modern cognitive therapists:

It’s our failure to understand the essential nature of an emotion as it arises that gets us into trouble. Once we do, the emotion tends to dissolve.

Indeed, we are often our own worst enemies, as the great Buddhist sage, Santideva (7th c. AD), put it:

Eager to escape sorrow, men rush into sorrow; from desire of happiness, they blindly slay their own happiness, enemies to themselves.

I went on to discuss “the common bond of humanity” as an idea central to all three of our traditions. Thus, Judaism teaches us that we are all created “in the Divine image”, and that, as Rabbi Moseh Lieber puts it,

 …we must treat people properly because all people play a role in God’s plans; nobody was created for naught, be it a fool, an ignoramus, or even an evil person. They are all part of the Divine Scheme…

Similarly, Buddhism emphasizes the essential unity of mankind, and, indeed, all sentient beings. This attitude is expressed in the concepts of Buddha nature, suffering, and compassion. As B. Allen Wallace puts it,

…all sentient beings, including humans, are endowed with Buddha-nature…[defined as] the potential for full awakening…

All human beings experience suffering (dukha), and thereby have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to cultivate compassion for every other human being. This concept is also stressed in Stoicism, and is given a rather spiritualized treatment in the writings of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred…for there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures, and one truth…

The importance of moral obligations appears as a prominent theme in all three traditions, and is intimately connected with the achievement of a “flourishing life.” That is, living ethically is not merely an obligation; it is also a kind of portal into the realm of self-realization. To put it in more colloquial terms, if you live ethically, you will live well and fully. Thus, the Talmud teaches us that “The reward of a good deed is a good deed”—in effect, behaving ethically is its own reward. Furthermore, as Rabbi Alexander Ziskin observes, fulfilling a commandment “…is a time to feel great joy at your relationship with God.”

Among the elements of Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” are right speech, right conduct, and right vocation,  all considered under the rubric of sila (the code of conduct that leads to virtue). Sila, in turn, is the key to living the fulfilled life, according to Buddhist teachings.  As Wallace succinctly puts it,

The Buddhist view is simple: non-virtuous behavior leads to misery, virtuous behavior leads to joy.

The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron defined the essence of the Buddha’s teachings with equal brevity: “…it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible.”

For the Stoics, too, the key to living “the good life” lies in living the morally responsible life. Every other notion of “the good” proves to be illusory. Thus, Seneca writes in one of his letters, “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” Similarly, Epictetus argues that “The good for human beings lies in this one thing alone: for each of us to perfect our moral character…” In sum, the JuBuSto tradition emphasizes that only by living ethical lives can we achieve genuine happiness and become fully human.

All three of our traditions stress the importance of reducing, or modulating, what I have termed “desires and attachments.” While none of the traditions argues for the total elimination of desires, each admonishes us to “detach” ourselves from intense and overwhelming cravings. From the Jewish perspective, probably nobody has put the matter more clearly than Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed: “All the difficulties and troubles I meet [in daily life] are due to the desire for superfluous things…the more I desire to have the superfluous, the more I meet with difficulties.”

Maimonides the rationalist is joined by Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the mystic, in pointing to the dangers of excessive attachments and desires. Nahman tells us that, “Worldly desires are like sunbeams in a dark room. They may seem solid, but the person who tries to grasp a sunbeam finds nothing in his hand. The same is true of all worldly desires.”

The Buddhist tradition is, if anything, even more focused than the rabbis on the dangers of “grasping onto things” (upadana). As Ajahn Chah puts it,

The extraordinary suffering is the suffering that arises from what I call upadana, grasping on to things.  This is like [receiving] an injection with a syringe filled with poison.

At the same time—and in this, the rabbis would  concur—Buddhism teaches that there’s nothing inherently wrong in enjoying life’s pleasures, or even indulging in an occasional luxury. In fact, as Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron, points out, “…it’s attachment that makes us restless and prevents us from enjoying things.” In effect, we become so fixated on the object of our attachment that we can barely appreciate it.

Buddhism goes on to teach us that the way to reduce excessive attachment is by realizing the impermanence of everything—including, of course, our own lives.  As Aitken Roshi tells us, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” (italics added)

The Stoics, too, emphasize simplicity, lack of pretension, and non-attachment to fame,  fortune and status symbols. For the Stoics, the only real “good” in life is virtue. As Marcus Aurelius puts it,

There is but one thing of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.

It follows, then, that acquiring possessions, wealth, honor, prestige, and influence are merely illusory goods. But like the rabbis and the Buddhist sages, it is not “things in themselves” that are judged unworthy of the fully-developed person; rather, it is our intense attachment to these things. Thus, in describing his father, Marcus Aurelius writes,

 My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. (1.23).

I next discussed the attitude of the three traditions toward impermanence and mortality. All three recognize that our earthly existence is alarmingly short (though a proper understanding of life might lead us to be far less “alarmed”). In the Jewish tradition, we are put here on earth in order to refine our moral character and serve God. As Rabbi Moshe Lieber teaches us,

Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather [spiritual] treasure; once the time is up, [one] can no longer earn anything.

Given that we never know when our “time is up,” we must treat every day as if it were our last. Thus, as Rabbi Lieber puts it, the righteous person

…must always assume that today is the last day of his life and not push off his repentance. Hence, he will spend all his life in perpetual self-improvement.

Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that,

Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death…[Judaism’s] central concern is not how to escape death but rather, how to sanctify life.

This teaching is very close in spirit to the Buddhist teaching in the Dhammapada:

Neither father, sons nor one’s relations can stop the King of Death…[One] who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to Nirvana.

Buddhism, however, takes a somewhat different attitude than Judaism when it comes to placing value on our earthly existence. Whereas in Judaism, life is sanctified and valued as an opportunity to perfect ourselves in God’s ways, Buddhism sees earthly existence in more detached terms—not fundamentally different than other things governed by anicca (impermanence). Thus, Ajahn Chah writes,

Suppose you were sick and had to go into the hospital. Most people think, “Please don’t let me die, I want to get better.” That is wrong thinking, [and] it will lead to suffering. You have to think to yourself, “If I recover, I recover; if I die, I die.” This is right thinking…

Though this is not the typical attitude of Judaism—at least in modern times—I noted a similar sentiment in the viduy prayer in Judaism, said when the person is near death; i.e., the righteous Jew says to God, “May it be Your will to heal me. But if death is my lot, then I accept it from Your hand with love.”

 Thus, both Judaism and Buddhism share with Stoicism a certain reserve toward earthly existence, as expressed by Marcus Aurelius: “[T]he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.” But for Marcus, as for the rabbis and Buddhist sages, this equanimity does not relieve us of our ethical responsibilities. Marcus admonishes us,

Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regard every act and thought accordingly.

By this, Marcus means that we must live honorably, reasonably, and in accordance with Nature, at all times. He cautions us,

Don’t act as though you’ll live to be a thousand…in what remains of your allotted time, while you still can, become good. (4.17).

Seneca sums up the Stoic view of mortality when he writes, “The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live, and in spite of that, is not reluctant to die.”

I went on to explore the importance of gratitude in the three traditions, and found that each places great importance on this quality of mind. In the Talmudic tradition, gratitude is expressed for whatever one has been allotted in life, as when Ben Zoma asks, “Who is rich?” and replies, “One who rejoices in one’s portion.”

Perhaps reflecting a much earlier Stoic teaching, the 13th century sage, Jacob Anatoli taught that, “If a man cannot get what he wants, he ought to want what he can get.” (Toperoff 1997, p. 197). In the Jewish tradition, it is impossible to conceive of “the flourishing life” without the capacity to feel thankfulness and gratitude. I cited the Yiddish proverb about being grateful: “If you break a leg, be grateful that you didn’t break both legs!” Or, as a cartoon by Mankoff in the New Yorker put it—showing a woman standing next to her worried-looking husband—“But why not be happy about all the diseases that you don’t have?”

In Buddhism, too, gratitude (katannuta) is a foundational virtue. This is summed up in the saying attributed (perhaps spuriously) to the Buddha:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little; and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick; and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.

And, as Phillip Moffit observes, gratitude yields additional rewards. It becomes part of a “virtuous cycle” and is an integral part of the flourishing life:

Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy

 For the Stoics, gratitude is summed up in Seneca’s teaching, which sounds remarkably like Jacob Anatoli’s comment:

It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.

And, I took note of Cicero’s gratitude, in the midst of his old age, for the “…supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon…”

Finally, I explored the foundational value of self-restraint, and in particular, the necessity of controlling our anger. All three of our traditions would concur in arguing that no one who seeks a flourishing life can give vent to uncontrolled anger. The rabbinical tradition emphasizes the virtue of being slow to anger, and recognizes that the total elimination of all angry feelings is virtually impossible for all but a few saints and sages—and even some sages doubt that the complete eradication of anger would be entirely a good thing. The rabbis also recognized the element of narcissism in unbridled anger, which is compared to “worshipping idols.”

Similarly, in the Dhammapada, the Buddhist tradition holds that,

A man is not on the path of righteousness if he settles matters in a violent haste. A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence, and peace.

Buddhism holds that patience is the antidote to anger and aggression, and urges us to look deeply within ourselves to find the real cause of our anger. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, “You yourself may have created the hell inside you.”

The Stoics, too, saw intense anger as a genuine evil—even one that could “beget madness,” as Epicurus put it.  Furthermore, the one who is overcome by anger forgets important truths about our place in the overall order of things. As Marcus Aurelius observes,

I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids and lower rows of teeth…


Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something…you’re forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it, and that the present moment is all you have, to live and lose.

Modified and condensed from The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse), 2013. References available upon request to the author (

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


The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver

This talk was given at Stoicon in Toronto on October 14, 2017. The topic of the conference was  “Stoicism in the Workplace.” I would like to thank Don Robertson, Amy Valladares, and Greg  Sadler, for their work as organizers. A special tip of the hat goes also to Chris Gill, from whom I  received my first introduction to the Modern Stoicism movement. 

Remembering the conference theme, let’s start with the word “professional.” What associations  do we have with this word? What expectations does it place on us? Are those reasonable and fair  expectations, and if so, how do we equip ourselves to meet them?  

As an initial exercise, here is another set of words to think about. Where are we on these words? 

  • unmoved apathetic calm 
  • impassive serene unflappable 
  • tranquil unfeeling placid 
  • unsentimental unemotional unruffled 

If you are like me and like my students, you can easily identify several of these words as  negative words that you would not want to hear applied to yourself. Others are more  complimentary; some might even be neutral. But the point of interest here is that if you make the  effort to strip away the positive or negative valence of these words, all of them mean pretty much  the same thing: they describe a person who doesn’t respond emotionally in situations where  many people would.  

So this is the first challenge. Let’s see if we can make the effort to get past some of those  preconceived notions of what people ought to be like and think clearly about what concepts  underlie our words.  

In this piece, I want to do two things. First, I want to probe the very notion of a dispassionate  life. What sort of life would that be? I maintain that although this idea of a dispassionate life  sounds like just one idea, in fact it is more than one. I want to trace some of the history of this  idea within Greek philosophy, as a way to bring out some of the different things “dispassionate”  might mean. I think this operation is extraordinarily important for modern Stoics and those who  may be curious about Stoicism. Some people may be reading this precisely because they are  interested in getting closer to a life free of emotional disturbance. Others may be skeptical about  Stoicism precisely because they think such a life would be wrong. Either way, we need some  clarity on what the ancient Stoics had in mind when they put forward their claim that the best  human life would be dispassionate. 

Second, I mean to share some information about techniques that were on offer in ancient texts  for bringing oneself closer to the dispassionate life. These hold considerable theoretical interest,  whether or not we think that any of them would actually be helpful for a modern person. 

In this vein, it’s worth pointing out that while virtually all the Greek philosophers were strongly  interested in mental health, they weren’t the equivalent of our mental health professionals. They  were theorizing about human beings generally, not about people who were in crisis or were  having highly unusual emotional problems. So what I say here should be thought of as relating to  mental health in a very broad sense of the word.  

Three Ancient Schools of Dispassionate Living 

In what follows, we will touch base with three different groups or schools of Greek philosophy,  each of which advocated for its own version of the dispassionate life. First will be the Cynics, kynikoi or dog-philosophers, associated with Diogenes of Sinope; second the Epicureans and  their predecessor Democritus; and third the Stoics.  

We’re going to need some terminology. Our word “emotion” is a class term, it names the  category whose members are anger, grief, fear, delight, eagerness, and whatever else we think is  of that kind. If we look for equivalent words in Greek as spoken in the fourth century BCE, we  find two possibilities. One is pathos, ‘a way of being affected’; corresponding to the Latin word  affectus. The other is tarachē, ‘a disturbance’, for which the Latin equivalent is perturbatio. I do  not intend to make any distinction between these two terms. Some authors favor one or the other,  but the meaning is the same, or at least near enough to allow for the comparisons I’ll be making  here. 

The same goes for two related words that alternate in the record for the Greek philosophies we’ll  be looking at. From pathos was derived the term apatheia, the a- prefix indicating a lack or  absence. That one I’ll usually translate “impassivity.” And similarly, the word tarachē gets an a prefix and becomes ataraxia, which I’ll usually translate “non-disturbedness”. Either way, we  have a word tied to the idea of a life without emotion, without yet specifying what exactly such a  life might be.  

Now, before I go any further, let’s check in with the opposition. Not everybody in the ancient  world favored the idea of a dispassionate life. The philosophers who called themselves  Peripatetics had objections to it, and so did many of those who called themselves Platonists. A  leader of the post-Platonic Academy, a philosopher by the name of Crantor, put the case against the dispassionate life in terms we can all recognize.  

Crantor was writing around 300 B.C., in a consolatory essay—that is, a kind of open letter  addressed to someone recently bereaved, offering them the comforts of philosophy. Crantor’s  consolation must have said, as most of these pieces do, “it’s OK to cry for a while, anyone  would”—but then he turns philosopher and adds, 

I cannot by any means agree with those who extol some kind of impassivity (apatheia).  Such a thing is neither possible nor beneficial. I do not wish to be ill, but if I am, and if  some part of my body is to be cut open or even amputated, let me feel it. This absence of  pain comes at a high price: it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.  — Crantor, quoted by Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 3.10 

For Crantor, then, the experience of emotion is both a necessary and a desirable part of being  human: eliminating it is “neither possible nor beneficial.” We need to have sensations of grief  when calamities befall us, just as we need to feel pain when our bodies are injured. Otherwise we  would have lost the responsiveness to stimuli that is essential to human nature: we would be  “numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.”  

This is a powerful objection. It’s one that has occurred to me and I’m sure equally to you and to  everyone who has an interest in ancient Stoicism. As we go forward, I want you to keep that objection in mind.  

The Cynics or Dog-philosophers  

Now let’s get started with our dog-philosophers or Cynics. The English word “cynical” is not  particularly helpful for understanding the ancient Cynics. The term relates to the Greek word  kynes, meaning ‘dogs’ – a label that seems to have been deliberately chosen by the Cynics  themselves. As we’ll see, the mind of the Cynic was thought to be comparable, in a way, to the  mind of a dog.  

Our sources speak of quite a number of public personalities who took the label “Cynic,” in many  different places and times. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is often named as an important  influence, but Diogenes of Sinope, in the 4th century BCE, was the iconic figure, and others  followed in his footsteps, including Crates of Thebes and his life-partner Hipparchia, Bion,  Menippus, and various others on into the time of the Roman empire. 

These are mostly solitary figures, not a school as such, and not a fully developed system of  philosophy either. What held them together was a handful of slogans and practices that point to a  distinctive ideology. The Cynics imitated Diogenes in living what they considered to be a life  according to nature. That is, a completely no-frills life, with possessions at an absolute  minimum: no house, clothing only as required by the cold, the simplest possible food, such as  can be acquired by begging in the street. Sleeping on the ground. No shoes, ever. No career, no  religion, no use of money, no marriage: all those things are products of convention, not of nature.  It is the life of a dog, completely unembarrassed, all the body functions performed in public,  unconstrained by any cultural expectations. 

What’s to be gained by this sort of life? Positive ideals for the Cynics are expressed in terms like  ischus, strength; sōphrosynē, self-control; autarkeia, self-sufficiency; parrhēsia, speaking one’s  mind – but above all, karteria, or toughness. So, the Cynic goes without shoes, not just as a way to avoid all the cultural baggage that shoes represent, but more importantly as a way to become  tough. If you walk barefoot long enough, eventually the skin of your feet will develop a callus,  and you won’t feel the stony ground.  

Along with these Cynic values goes the one they called apatheia. Indeed, apatheia was  sometimes named as the very hallmark of Cynicism. According to the biographer Diogenes  Laertius, it was because Antisthenes imitated Socrates’ impassivity that he was called “the first  founder of Cynicism.” 

Antisthenes learned endurance from Socrates and imitated his impassivity (apathes) and  thus became the first founder of Cynicism. 

Diogenes Laertius 6.2 

Similarly, we are told that Diogenes of Sinope was characterized by impassivity more than any  other trait (6.15), and that when Bion of Borysthenes took up the coarse robe and the beggar’s  purse that were the accoutrements of the Cynic, he was thereby converted “to impassivity”  (4.51). 

What sort of impassivity is this? We can take our cue from the exercises Cynics used in training.  There were physical exercises – for instance embracing marble statues in the dead of winter, to  train one’s body to endure the cold. Analogous to these were the mental exercises. My favorite:  requiring a pupil to carry a stinky piece of cheese through a crowded city street, until he learns  not to be embarrassed by it. That is, manageable discomforts, regularly repeated, as a means of  toughening oneself up, to a point at which even much greater calamities are no longer felt. 

The approach reminds me quite strongly of the inoculation technique called the pre-rehearsal of  future ills, in which one was supposed to ponder daily every calamity that can happen — the  premature death of a family member, the loss of one’s home, and so on – so as to be prepared,  and not emotionally destroyed, if such an event ever came to pass in reality. That idea is even older than the Cynics: it was known already to the playwright Euripides, and although it is not specifically linked to Diogenes or any of the Cynics, it was undoubtedly known to them.  

Those familiar with modern cognitive behavioral therapy will recognize the idea of desensitizing oneself to a stimulus by repeated exposure to it under controlled circumstances. 

So this is one version of the dispassionate life. We can refer to it as “the thickened skin”.  Apatheia in this conception is a matter of hardening the boundaries of the person, to make us less  responsive to stimuli. It is the psychological equivalent of the toughened feet of the Cynic, and it  is an important part of what Diogenes was after. 

This brings me back to the objection of Crantor, to the view that apatheia is neither harsh nor  beneficial, that it’s better to be able to feel things. What do the Cynics have to say to this? Do  they concede that their approach “means being numb in body and in mind scarcely human”? 

Quite the contrary! Their response is to turn the tables. Why should anyone say that the feet of  human beings are naturally tender, as if we were all born wearing shoes? Why not say rather that  toughness is our natural state? So, for instance, this bit from one of the so-called Cynic Epistles: 

The many, when they hear that there is a short-cut that leads to happiness, are motivated  to philosophize as we do; but when they come to that road and see its difficulty, they turn  away like weaklings. Then they do not blame their own softness, but our impassivity  (apatheia).  

– Cynic Epistle #12 

For the Cynic, the asceticism that restores that toughness is “a short-cut to happiness.” If people  find that road too difficult, it may not be the Cynic apatheia that is to blame, but the softening  influence of cultural institutions. Such is the Cynic conception of impassivity. 

The Atomists Democritus and Epicurus 

For a different understanding of what it is to be emotionless, I turn now to the atomist tradition,  represented both by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus and later by the Hellenistic  philosopher Epicurus. Both Democritus and Epicurus are remembered now especially for their  theories about the nature of the universe, how everything we observe can be made up of just  atoms and void. But both were important also for their teachings in ethics, and there are some  points of similarity between them. 

The goal of Democritus’s ethics was a good state of mind, euthumia, defined as “a calm and  stable existence, not disturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion” (Diogenes  Laertius 9.45). Notice the terminology: a state free of both emotion, pathos and disturbance,  tarachē; also, the emphasis on fear and superstition as the main sources of disturbance. But  there’s another word here that interests me: calm. That word is actually a metaphor in Greek:  calm, galēnē, is the condition of a lake or the sea when it is without waves, not stirred by any  gale or storm.  

That metaphor is used also by Epicurus, and I maintain that it is the key to the atomists’  approach. Think of a tranquil lake. Why are the waters still? Is it because there is a hard shell on  the lake that protects it from anything that might stir it up? No, the water is open to the sky. It  could be moved, if some gust of wind sprang up – but in fact there is no wind, not today.  

And that is the Epicurean contention. The vast majority of Epicurus’s arguments were aimed at  convincing the hearer of four things: first, that there is no reason for superstitious fear of divine  powers – gods do exist, but not the sort of gods that could ever hurt us or even interact with us.  Second, that death cannot harm us: we merely cease to exist, and what’s the harm in that? Third, that everything we really need for life is obtainable without strenuous effort, and fourth, that  poverty, physical discomfort, and even pain are not such a big deal that we need to be anxious  about them.  The scientific side of Epicureanism, their theories about atoms and void, are all directed toward these ends. For instance, using atomic physics to supply explanations for lightning and thunder, so that we don’t need to believe that God is out to get us; or explaining what happens at death in terms of the physical dissolution of the human psyche, so that we see how little we have to worry about. 

That’s just a quick sketch of Epicurean thought, but it’s enough to give us a sense of how Epicurus might respond to the objection put by Crantor.  Crantor’s complaint had been that the dispassionate life is a bad idea because it makes us  insensitive, “numb in body and in mind scarcely human.”  

Epicurus can respond that on his understanding of ‘dispassionate,’ the natural sensitivity of the  human being is still fully operational. It’s just that the Epicurean has a correct understanding of  the world and realizes that there is no reason be disturbed by it. The Epicurean mind is a quiet  pool not because it can’t feel the wind, but because it realizes that no wind is blowing.  

In fact, Epicurus needs that water to be able to move with the breezes, for two reasons: first,  because we rely on sense-perception to give us information about the world, and second because  we rely on our capacity for pleasure and pain to guide our actions.  

And this leaves us with a question. Given that the Epicurean’s mind is capable of being  distressed, what if something happens that even Epicurus recognizes as a real source of mental  pain? Because such things can happen in his world. At the very least, the death of friends or  family members is a real loss to the Epicurean. Can Epicurus say, then, that the dispassionate life  remains available in all circumstances? 

Well, it seems there was a back-up plan. 

We have it in a passage of Cicero, talking about the Epicurean approach to grief management.  The term is “redirection”.  

As for the means of easing distress, Epicurus holds that there are two: distracting the  mind from the thought of suffering, and redirecting it to the contemplation of pleasures.  For he claims that the mind is capable of listening to reason and following where reason  leads. Reason forbids us to direct our attention toward what is troubling, draws us away  from painful thoughts, and dulls the vision with which we contemplate our sufferings.  From all of this it sounds the retreat, and urges us rather to concentrate on pleasures of  every sort.  

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 3.33 

In a word, Epicurus relies on a kind of visualization technique, drawing on our capacity to  manipulate our inner attention. It is in a way the inverse of the old pre-rehearsal of future ills strategy. Rather than confronting painful thoughts in an attempt to desensitize oneself, Epicurus  favors turning the mind away from them and focusing on the pleasurable elements of our  experience. 

The Stoics On Cynic Impassivity 

We’ve now seen two versions of the dispassionate life: the thickened-skin impassivity of the  ancient Cynics, and the non-disturbedness of Democritus and Epicurus. Let’s now compare both  of those the Stoic conception of impassivity. 

Of course the very word “impassivity” brings to mind the notion that’s out there in the culture of what it is to be a Stoic. We’ve all heard it, how Stoics are or want to be impervious to pain, something like the rock of Gibraltar, or my personal favorite, James C. Taylor’s “Stoic Pig,” from A Porcine History of  Philosophy and Religion (Abingdon Press, 1972). That reading of  Stoicism and emotion was around even in the Roman world. The portrait of Cato in Lucan’s Pharsalia is a kind of parody of that  sort of stoical Stoic – not very different from the “Stoic pig”. 

But the real Stoics didn’t see it that way. Here’s Seneca in one of his essays:  

There are things that strike the wise person even if they do not overthrow him, such as  physical pain, loss of a limb, loss of friends and children, and during wartime the calamity of his fatherland in flames. I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we  do not endow him with the hardness of stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what  you endure is not virtue at all. 

On the Constancy of the Wise 10.4 

Seneca is very clear that the rock-of-Gibraltar notion of impassivity is the Cynic notion and not  the Stoic conception at all. For Seneca, the Cynic position does indeed “go beyond human  nature” (On the Brevity of Life 14.2). In the Letters on Ethics 9.3, he draws an explicit  comparison between Stoic and Cynic understandings of apatheia:  

Our position is different from theirs, in that our wise person conquers all adversities, but  still feels them; theirs does not even feel them.  

And in fact Seneca frequently goes out of his way to remark that the wise person “feels” not just  adversity but all kinds of things. His is a sage who blushes, trembles, laughs and cries, gets  irritated and can turn white as a sheet. It is a point that he especially emphasizes, building on  claims that he must have found in earlier Stoic texts. In the literature, the kind of involuntary  feeling he describes is sometimes called a “pre-emotion” (propatheia), or, equivalently, a “proto passion” or “first movement.” 

Fans of Epictetus will recognize this idea of an involuntary emotional response. It is the one  articulated in in Fragment 9 of Epictetus, where he says that when some terrifying sound occurs  – for example, the sound of a building beginning to collapse – then “even the wise person’s mind  necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while.” Not because the wise  person think that something genuinely bad is at hand, but “by certain rapid and unplanned  movements antecedent to the office of intellect and reason.”  

Clearly, Epictetus is thinking that a reaction you have quickly, before you have a chance to  decide whether the thing that is happening is harmful or helpful to you in some ultimate sense, is  not really very important. You might feel something, but what you feel is a flash in the pan:  brief, trivial and ineffectual. The Stoic can admit to this level of feeling without giving up on any  important principle. 

This gives us a kind of answer to Crantor’s complaint. But so far it is only a partial answer. The  point about involuntary feelings does help to clarify what counts as an emotion; it does not,  however, explain why the Stoics have to say about reactions that go beyond the tears, the  laughter, the trembling or the blush, to the involvement of our reasoning powers. Nor does it  explain why the Stoics objected to the actual emotions of human life. And surely it is those  emotions that Crantor has in mind. 

The Well-Placed Heart 

What then is the Stoics’ own understanding of impassivity? To grasp that, we have to consider  the school’s position on values. As we’ve already seen, their analysis was that a significant  affective response, the kind that isn’t just a momentary flash of excitement or irritation, always  involves a mental commitment to some judgment of value. When your read on a situation is that  something really bad or really good for you has just happened or is about to happen, and you 

have a visceral reaction on that basis, that is what Stoics mean by  emotion. Their doctrine on impassivity follows from there. In a  word, their view is that a wise person won’t have that visceral  response toward things that aren’t in fact good or bad for a  person, but only toward things that are. The wise person will  have what I call a well-placed heart, one that is set upon those  objects that are of genuine value for a human life.  

Let’s see how that works.  

In the Stoic system of value, there are two different classes of object that human beings are concerned with. Both classes matter, but that they matter in very  different ways. The first is that of external objects, which is to say, objects external to one’s own  character and conduct. Examples include the money and resources a person controls, what other  people say about them, their health and the health of their relatives, and other events whose  causes lie outside one’s own sphere of control.  

Obviously, every one of us is much concerned with this class of object, and there’s every reason  we should be: otherwise, it’s hard to see how we could be active in the world at all. But in a  Stoic ethics, none of these objects is genuinely and intrinsically good or bad for us. Whether a  person manages to obtain the more agreeable of them, or to avoid the disagreeable ones, does not  in itself make the difference in their having a good life. For this reason, these objects are also  referred to as indifferents. 

The second class of objects is very different. What counts here are features of one’s own  character and conduct: whether one is kind, whether one is fair, whether one behaves well whatever the situation might be. I like to call them integral objects of concern. It is these objects that Stoics regard as the true goods and bads of human life.  

Now, a key premise of the ancient Stoic position on emotional response was that the emotions  we typically experience are all directed at the first type of object—the indifferents. Fear is what  we feel when we think something is about to happen that we can’t control and that is a real threat  to our well-being. Distress registers our belief that something in our present circumstances is bad  for us, something we can’t easily get rid of. Even pleasure and delight arise from our belief that  the world has handed us something good.  

And for Stoics, that is exactly the problem with the emotions as we know them. Emotions are a  way of registering value, but the values they express are mistaken values. They react to external  objects as if they were the things that really matter in life, when in fact only features of our own  character or conduct are truly good or bad for a person.  

For that reason, the wise human being of Stoic theory does not ever experience emotions in  relation to external objects. He or she is impassive, apathēs, toward them. On the other hand, the  person of perfect wisdom may experience a strong, value-laden and affect-laden response toward  the integral objects of concern. When the object in view is a real good or evil, the ideal person  experiences what the Stoics termed “good emotions” or eupatheiai. The ancient reports list  numerous examples: various forms of joy in response to the many good aspects of the wise  person’s life; powerful motivations to do good; a horrified aversion from any wrong or shameful  action. And these eupathic responses extend also to other people, within the context of true  friendship and true love-relationships. 

So it seems that the Stoics were quite serious in pushing back not only against Crantor but also  against the early Cynics. They did advocate for impassivity in relation to the external objects:  their ideal person does not expend emotional energy on such things. But they also had a place for  emotionality in the best human life. Their notion of impassivity could encompass not only the trivial pre-emotions but also full-scale affective responses, in the purified and corrected versions  that belong to the Stoic sage.  

When studying the ancient view, it is tempting to ask a further question. We’ve seen that the  person of perfect wisdom responds quite correctly to integral objects as occasions for joy or  wishing or (for the bad ones) aversion. But could not ordinary non-wise people also recognize  and respond to the integral objects as good or bad for themselves. Could we not recoil from vice  and long for virtue, like the young Alcibiades touched by  Socrates’ teachings? 

In the ancient texts, the answer to this question seems to be no. In the few passages I’ve been able to find where that interesting door is opened a crack, it’s immediately shut again. The Stoics reasoned, perhaps, that morally imperfect people don’t really have access to the attitudes and feelings of wisdom. Even our best ideas and efforts are still susceptible to error. The joys and sorrows of our present state must be quite different from what a perfect mind would experience.

Expanding the Ancient View 

But this is a place where the modern Stoic might reasonably seek to modify the ancient position.  In the last chapter of Stoicism and Emotion, I make the case that a view of the emotions that  develops on Stoic lines should give some thought to ordinary people’s feelings about virtue and  vice. Even if the original Stoics didn’t go in this direction, we today can expand our notion of  dispassionate living to include non-wise versions of the sage’s eupathic responses. 

For the fact is that the emotions of familiar experience are not solely concerned with objects  external to our sphere of control. Very often they are directed also, or even primarily, at integral  objects, through a phenomenon that I’ll call “compounding.”  

Compounding is something I can access from my own inner experience, as I imagine you can in  yours. My grief for the loss of my mother is interlaced with sorrow over the ways I might not  have come through for her. My frustration at meeting with a difficult colleague gains much of its  force from the realization that I have failed by to establish good communication with that  person. Joy and pleasure in my experience have a great deal to do with feeling good about things  I am able to achieve, or with good qualities I discover in people I love. At least, that is how it is  enough of the time to make me wonder whether feelings relating to the integral objects might not  be a major component in many, if not all, of our most serious anxieties and griefs, even angers,  as well as in our greatest satisfactions.  

If that’s the case, then perhaps it is possible for a serious person to work through her emotional reactions, to get at the elements of true belief that are contained in them while letting go of the  mistaken values that are probably in there as well. Maybe not in the heat of the moment: the  ancient authors observed, quite rightly, that rethinking an emotion while you are right in the grip  of it is essentially impossible. But after the fact, we can review what our complicated and messy  emotions are telling us about our evaluative beliefs. We can also work on our reasoning  processes themselves. That, I think, is the real task for modern Stoics: not to eliminate the  emotions across the board, not to shield themselves from circumstances that tend to trigger  emotions, not to retrain themselves through desensitization or visualization exercises, but to  purify the emotions by making them rational. If I read the system correctly, the only viable  emotion management technique within Stoicism is to fix the underlying judgments – both their  content and the habits of assent that give rise to them.  

Seneca’s account of his efforts to cure his own tendency toward anger can serve as one example  of the practical approach a Stoic might take. The practice he describes is intensely verbal and  logical, calling upon the ability of the mind to scrutinize its own previous decisions. He writes,  

I use this ability and each day I argue my case within myself. When the lamp has been  taken away from view and my wife falls silent (she knows my habits by now), I review my entire day and reflect upon my words and deeds. I hide nothing from myself. I pass  over nothing. Why should I fear any of my errors, when I am able to say to myself, “See that you don’t do this again.”  

On Anger 3.36

The self-examination that Seneca describes doesn’t concern only those moments in which he  became angry. It seems to be a more general review of his behavior, such as can bring out the  decisions that underlie all his words and actions and can evaluate their internal logic. It is not a  quick fix: its merits are honesty and completeness. And this is just one element of a process of  rational self-scrutiny and self-correction that a Stoic might employ for an extended period of  time. As one begins to think more clearly about what really matters for a human being, the  emotions begin – at least begin— to fall into line.  

The dispassionate life and the life of reason 

We hear a great deal about reason in Stoic studies – and as far as I’m concerned we can hardly  hear too much. It’s a much needed corrective to what’s coming at us from the surrounding  culture, where appeals to reason are scarcely to be heard anymore. For Stoics, ancient and  modern, reason is the most essential of all our capacities. It’s the central fact about human nature  and the only thing that can make us happy. And while we are none of us perfectly rational, it is  quite possible to improve our rational activity, through study, through individual exercises like  Seneca’s nightly routine, or through discussions with a like-minded friend. 

The Stoic version of the dispassionate mind has a certain kinship with the Epicurean approach.  We’ve seen how Epicurus taught his followers to use their powers of scientific reasoning to  convince themselves that the objects that most frequently give rise to fear, desire, or are not  really anything to worry about. Through disciplined application of rational thought, the  Epicurean mind becomes like a calm lake with nothing out there to disturb it. In Stoicism, the language of “indifferents” – a constant refrain in both Seneca and Epictetus – is quite similar, in  that it appeals to philosophical reasoning to alter the learner’s beliefs about what objects merit  the emotional response.  

In essence, both systems dismiss the majority of emotions as arising from false beliefs that can  be corrected. Both also make some allowance for emotions that arise from true beliefs, though  here there is a difference. Epicurus suggests preserving tranquility by “redirecting” the mind  away from sources of distress. The Stoics speak of a wise person who is completely serene in the  face of externals, but has a lively affective response to aspects of her own character and  behavior, seeing them, correctly, as good and desirable or (potentially) bad and to be avoided. For similar reasons, modern Stoics can find a role for truth-based emotions even among the non wise.  

In a way, the Cynic conception of apatheia also has a counterpart within Stoic thought. We’ve  seen that among the preeminent values for the Cynics are toughness (karteria) and strength (ischus). It’s not always clear, in a Cynic context, whether that means bodily toughness and  strength, or mental – if we could ask Diogenes, no doubt his answer would be “both.” But there’s  no question that for the Cynics, the best and most natural condition for human beings is the one  in which we are able to shrug off all the usual causes of pain, embarrassment, fear, and sorrow.  Becoming strong means developing a kind of immunity to such things. 

Stoic thought offers a similar idea, but cashed out in terms of the way our reasoning powers operate. The human mind can be either “strong” or “weak” in terms of its readiness to assent;  that is, to yield to new impressions. Weak minds are ones that give way easily, taking on board  many unwarranted notions. The strong mind of the sage demands proper justification before  endorsing an impression as true. Since emotional responses occur only when we make certain  kinds of judgments about things we think are good or bad for ourselves, sound habits of assent  would ensure that we never experience emotion on the basis of false estimations of value.  

The ancient Stoics could express this idea in physical terms, by saying that the wise person’s  mind consists of “spirit” or “breath” (pneuma) in its optimal level of “tension” (tonos). In Stoic  physics, the entire universe is pervaded by pneuma, or energized air, which carries with it the rational principles that coordinate all of nature in a single interconnected system; and we, too, at  our best, function in a way that expresses tight logical connections among our beliefs and  judgments. Chrysippus of Soli also speaks of this same “tension” by analogy to our bodily states.  In Book 4 of his treatise On Emotions, he writes that just as the body may be either “lacking in  tendons” or “having good tendons” when it is or is not able to perform various tasks, so the mind  lacks tension when it yields too readily to emotional triggers, but has “good tension” (eutonia) when it resists.  

It is in this connection that we say, metaphorically, that some people are ‘without tendon’  and others ‘have tendons.’ One person retreats in the presence of what is frightening,  another slackens and gives way when rewards or penalties are offered, and there are  many similar cases. 

Chrysippus in von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 3.473 

It is important that Chrysippus marks this language as the language of metaphor. We’re not  talking here about strength of body, nor even about strength of will as that phrase is usually  understood. The essential Stoic idea is not about suppressing feelings that you have, but about  insisting on sound logic in the judgments you form about what is valuable in your life. Strength  of reason gets the priorities right, and therefore gets the emotions right.  

In closing, let’s return once more to the word “professional.” I hope that reading this short essay  has been of use to you in articulating some of the thoughts that come to mind when you read this  word professional: thoughts, perhaps, about being calm and focused on what you’re trying to  achieve; thoughts about your own abilities and the things you can control; thoughts about  fairness, courage, intelligence, and strength. Dispassionate living is all of that; and if the ancient  philosophers we’ve looked at here have it right at all, then it’s happiness as well. 


Annas, J. 1992. Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind. Berkeley.

Branham, R. B., and M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, eds. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and  its Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Gill, C. 2013. “Philosophical therapy as preventive psychological medicine.” In Mental  Disorders in the Classical World, ed. W.V. Harris, 339-60. Leiden ; Boston : Brill.  

Graver, M. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4. Chicago, 2002.  

Graver, M. Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago, 2007. (Helpfully summarized by Massimo Pigliucci:

Malherbe, A.J. 1977. The Cynic Epistles. Missoula, Mont.: Society of Biblical Literature. 

Rist, J.M. “The Stoic Concept of Detachment,” in J.M. Rist, ed., The Stoics. Berkeley: University  of California Press, 1978.  

Striker, G. 1996. Essays in Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. 

Warren, J. 2002. Epicurus and Democritean ethics : an archaeology of ataraxia. Cambridge;  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Margaret Graver is Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth College.  She is the author of Stoicism and Emotion and Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, and the translator of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics .  She gave the keynote address at Stoicon 2017.

The Red Band: A Stoic Criticism of the Red Pill by Vadim Korkhov

The Red Pill is the title of a movement and part of a broader movement called Men’s Rights Activism (MRA).  In recent years, its presence has escalated rapidly on the internet in parallel with right-wing nationalism.  Its major presence is on the social media and news site Reddit.  There, it holds a moderated discussion board where men come both to learn of its principles and teachings as well as seek advice for their own circumstances.

Red Pill, and the “Manosphere” (the collection of doctrines that springs from MRA), believe themselves to be inheriting an ancient masculine tradition whose roots go back to Stoicism, and the principles therein.  Red Pill claims to reflect Stoic teachings and values but falls far short of them, using them merely to establish clout.  Here I will go about explaining theRed Pill, both in its explicit claims and in its implicit ones, and demonstrate that it is little more than an outlet for disaffected and frustrated men, eager to blame others for their ills and desperate to cling to principles that further their anger.

What Red Pill Truly Is.

Red Pill has few comprehensive and systematic doctrines.  To sort out its guiding principles, one has to read their extensive literature and view YouTube videos by gurus.  Based on outward claims by its authorities, Red Pill is admittedly not a philosophy, but rather a “praxeology”.  Despite sounding like it was derived from Ancient Greek, and therefore lending more credence to the Red Pill claim of inheritance from ancient tradition, praxeology is a coined term from the 19th century that was supposed to refer to the science of human action.  The term never came into much use by science and was instead adopted by the Austrian School of Economics, from which much modern American right-wing economics is derived.  This is another nod to Red Pill as a derivative of broader right wing political movements.

As far as Red Pill claims not to be based on principle, but action, its goal is simple and spelled out on its Reddit sidebar. Red Pill is an amoral strategy to maximize sexual opportunity for a man with a woman.  In this, it prescribes a set of techniques, directed both outward with action, and inward to character building, that it believes will vastly enhance sexual opportunity for men.  The approaches espoused by Red Pill are nearly all derived from the Seduction Community (also called Pick-Up Artists – PUA).  But whereas PUA was solely interested in maximizing sex, Red Pill demands more.  In fact, Red Pill despises PUA, calling it a traitor to masculinity.

Red Pill believes that men have lost touch with their masculinity due to the shift in the social expectations of modern Western culture, and that these masculine features are those craved by women.  These features include a strong unshakable character and leadership quality, among others.  These have been lost in the quest for equality of the sexes, which women don’t actually want, despite the claims of feminists.  And that if only men would seize upon their masculinity, without apology, they would gain the adoration of women.  Thus, from the outset, Red Pill quickly distorts its claim of being merely a set of actions.  It is, indeed, a philosophy.

The core of the assertion of Red Pill is the implication that men have surrendered themselves to feminism, and that feminism is really just a disguised effort to subvert domination by men for domination by women.  In their view, feminism is really nothing more than a subversion of the positive role of masculinity which has transformed men from their rightful place as leaders of civilization to its servants, so that women can replace them as leaders.  This is called the “Feminine Imperative” and the demands of equality are nothing more than a test (“shit test”) to see which men are brave enough to resist it and gain a woman’s admiration for the defiant act of courage.

In their view, it was men who built Western civilization into the greatness that it is, and that, despite some flaws, the old social order is preferable to the new social order of feminism. Red Pill waxes nostalgically about the old social order of masculine dominance, hoping to restore it so that men may take more leadership of themselves and their social spheres.  But until that happens, each man must restore this social order within themselves and their immediate circle.  There is no claim to justice here. Red Pill derides what it believes is feminism’s attempt at usurpation of the man for the favor of woman, while it hypocritically asserts man’s leadership to the expense of a woman’s will and liberty.  Each is just a faction, aiming to assert power and nothing more.

Reading Red Pill tracts and literature, as well as the many threads on message boards, one notices the recurrent theme of men’s anger and resentment.  There is the premise of bitterness of men who believe they have suffered humiliation and stagnation at the hands of women, and their inability to compete with women.  They are drawn to Red Pill for its easy answer of casting blame on others – women.  It is not that men have done wrong, so they say, but that men have been made to believe the lies of the feminine imperative, and Red Pill will reveal these lies to them.  The truth will be revealed and it will be terrifying but liberating, and will finally allow man to assert his will when he was once just a slave.

The origin of the term “red pill” is from a scene in the film The Matrix, where the character Neo must decide if he wants to learn the unpleasant truth by swallowing the red pill, or accept a pleasant lie by swallowing the blue pill.  Many men who have been indoctrinated into Red Pill become angry at themselves for being victims of lies for so long.  Their leaders actually encourage this anger, advising neophytes to use it for good purpose, such as in exercise or leadership.  They once again betray their lack of awareness of Stoic doctrine, which says that anger is a destructive and not a useful emotion.  Conspiracy theories like to take simple truths and make them more elaborate.  The simple fact is that most of these men have had bad relationships with women that they’ve generalized upon all women, and are determined to take revenge by taking a position of dominance over them — cruel dominance if necessary.

Dominance is the key feature of Red Pill, whereby all aspects of a relationship with a woman are measured by who makes decisions and who has power, and how to play power games to divert as much power onto the man.  One adage holds that the one who cares least about a relationship controls the relationship.  There is no room for a relationship built on mutual benefit or cooperation – only obedience.

One cited power structure is the “captain and first mate” scheme.  The man is the captain of the ship – the household – and the first mate is the woman.  Both are leaders of the household and while the first mate can discuss orders with the captain, the captain’s orders are final.

Both men and women are caricatured.  Men are defined as “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Omega”, in order of leadership role.  Women defined as seeking wealth and social status by attachment to powerful men – never love – and to use their sexuality as leverage.  The terms “alpha male” and “beta male” are derived from zoology referring to social animals where a single powerful male is solely allowed to mate with all the females of the group.  The wisest alpha male realizes how to leverage his desirability to women by his social status, just as the wisest woman leverages her sexuality for a man’s social status.

Both genders are expected to be “hypergamous” – to leave their partners once they no longer serve their useful purpose and seek others.  Although women are usually accused of this more, Red Pill encourages men towards this same behavior.  For women, their biological agenda is to seek out the fittest male with which to produce fit children, and also to provide for her and these children.  For men, the goal appears to be to find a woman to satisfy his sexual cravings with enthusiasm, and most of all without complaint.

To gain sexual favor with women, there are a wide assortment of tricks and tips, all adopted from PUA, which strive to subvert a woman’s judgement to have sex with a man without getting to know him well.  Readers who are interested are free to seek out relevant sources of information on Seduction, and it is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on them.  Although some tactics are clearly aimed at self-improvement, such as integrity, character, and confidence, many are gimmicks such as the best approaches, controlling the “frame” of a conversation, and sexual escalation.

One aspect, often called “inner game”, involves focusing on one’s inner demeanor, confidence, and poise so as to increase one’s attractiveness with the opposite sex, but not to better oneself for its own sake.  Thus there is the reliance on an external – the value judgement of a woman.  Lost in this advice is the focus on the person of the man, his character, his value as a human and not merely a sexual object, and his value as a productive member of society.  Most proscriptions devolve to the appearance of social status, wealth, and power, not virtue, since that’s all that RP believes women care about.

Once again, despite its claims, Red Pill does not understand Stoicism.  Social status, wealth, and power are typical externals that are derided by Stoicism as being wasteful endeavors that are largely outside one’s power, yet Red Pill encourages their pursuit.  If they were really interested in applying Stoicism to approaching the opposite sex, one might imagine they would advise sticking to one’s virtue and integrity while eschewing material goods and vain reputation, and letting those women who value those things come to you.

How The Red Pill Is Not Stoicism.

Red Pill believes itself the inheritor of an ancient masculine philosophical tradition, specifically Stoicism.  But what it is actually doing is selectively using and misusing some aspects of Stoicism to gain standing for its flawed doctrines.  While some of its approaches have a hint of Stoicism, they are very selective, with Stoicism often serving as a point of awe and admiration by Red Pill practitioners.  In actuality, it does not resemble Stoicism despite its claims in the following ways:

  • There is no appeal or effort towards justice. Red Pill is just an amoral sexual strategy.  It cannot be amoral and also Stoic because, in Stoicism, virtue is regarded as the sole good.  Feminism is claimed to be an injustice, but Red Pill simply wants to replace it with the old social order of the domination of men in place of the domination of women.  It favors a social order based solely on obedience of one group to another, with contrived justifications such as “men built civilization.”  There is no effort made to justify obedience for deserved reasons, such as wise leadership.
  • There is no appeal to wisdom. There is only a striving towards superficial wisdom, like approaches and conversational framing.  Nor is there insistence on gaining to know a woman as a person, and not as a sexual target. Red Pill generally sees wisdom in narrow terms of what is immediately useful, without any long term foresight.
  • There is almost no mention of the dichotomy of control. The only mention of the dichotomy of control is that if one approach fails, try another.  However, little is offered on alternatives to standard Red Pill dogma.  For the most part, if you fail at something, it is just your fault for being either too stupid or too weak to apply Red Pill methods properly.  This is demonstrated when men ask for advice from others in message boards, where they are usually derided for weakness or lassitude.  This tends to discourage advice seeking and favors posts on boasting success
  • There is no sense of community. The community is nothing more than a sexual marketplace, where people are selling sex for wealth and status, and social bonds nothing more than goods and services in a market.  Outside of the sexual marketplace, society is nothing more than a game of dominance, with some having more power than others, and some commanding, whether or not they deserve that privilege, and others obeying, whether or not they deserved this subservience.

On the other hand, Red Pill does resemble Stoicism in the following ways, which makes it appear as if one derives from the other, and in this way, may make it attractive.

  • Courage is favored. A true alpha male is one who is not afraid to be daring.  He stands up to adversity and intimidation.  No woman is out of one’s league, and no challenge is impossible.  This factor is one of the most pushed in Red Pill circles.
  • Temperance is encouraged. Men do not whine and cry “like women” and accept, with calm reservation, whatever situation they’re in.  There is also a strong focus on athleticism, albeit less for one’s health and more for one’s attractiveness with women.  On the other hand, temperance is betrayed when men are encouraged to gain social status, wealth, and power, and not necessarily for personal benefit, but to be attractive to women.
  • There is some allowance for the Stoic principle of Providence. One commonly repeated maxim is that a woman is never “yours” but only borrowed for a time, until she is another man’s.  But here there is a betrayal, because this also discourages long term relationships, the very antithesis of community.  Stoicism at least only acknowledges that a family can be ended with death, but not so casually disposed of as divorce or lack of interest in the partner.

To summarize, Red Pill only resembles Stoicism in its regard towards some internalized goals of the man – character and strength of will – in order to maximize his perceived attractiveness in the eyes of women.  Internalized goals of personal improvement are only incidental to the goal of sexual attractiveness, and therefore, nothing more than vanity.  The pursuit of virtue is not the primary motive, only sexual attractiveness is.  What few virtues are cultivated are also incidental.  There is an obsessive focus on vanities and externals, including sex itself, which is not only an external but depends also on the cooperation of another who is entirely outside of one’s control.  The focus on externals explains why many Red Pillers are inherently insecure and constantly seek to put down others who challenge them.

Dr. Vadim Korkhov is a critical care physician who works in the ICU of a major urban hospital in the US.  He developed an interest in ancient Greece and Rome from an early age, and earned a BA in Classical Civilization from NYU.  He developed an interest in philosophy from a colleague, in more recent years, which led to his immersion in Stoicism.