Stoic Minimalism: Stripping the Dead Bark Off Orthodox Stoicism by Chuck Chakrapani

This article is based on the intent of a talk I delivered at Stoicon 2017, and written from the perspective of a practitioner rather than of an academic. It is also a personal perspective. Like Georges Clemenceau who said “War is much too serious a matter to be left to the military,” I feel that the Stoic philosophy is too important to be left to academic philosophers.

What Exactly Is Stoicism?

John Cooper, in Pursuits of Wisdom, points out that “In addressing Stoic ethical theory and the Stoic way of life, we face problems or a set of problems…”[1] not generally found in discussing most other philosophies. The set of problems Cooper talks about revolves around the fact that Stoicism is not the work of an authoritative figure or figures whose writings are still accessible. We have the works of Aristotle that define what Aristotle said; we have the works Xenophon and Plato that define what Socrates said; we have the works of Epicurus[2] to help us define Epicureanism.

But Stoicism, founded by Zeno around 300 BCE, was developed over a period of 500 years. During that time it had seven formal heads (scholarchs) and produced many influential Stoic thinkers. However, we are left with only a fraction, probably about 2%, of their writings, practically all of which belong to the later day Roman Stoics. What the Greek Stoics said from Zeno to the last Scholarch we know from the writings of people like the non-Stoic (but ‘sympathetic’) Cicero and (mostly anecdotal) Diogenes Laertius, who was hardly born when the last great Stoic Marcus Aurelius died. Even if we accept these sparse, and not always reliable, secondary sources as a balanced summary of what the ancient Greek Stoics actually said and meant, we find that the scholarchs had disagreements among themselves.

Even when the ancient Stoics were in agreement, many of the terms they used, such as virtue, god, and ethics, don’t mean the same things today. Again, the way they described things might have been innocuous at the time, but may be considered sexist, racist or in other ways inappropriate or outdated by today’s standards. We have no basis for saying that, were the ancient Stoics to live today, they would use the same examples and express the same ideas. This problem is exacerbated because of the long stretch of time during which Stoicism flourished.

We also must consider the concern that not everything that a Stoic said was based on Stoicism. Some of their views could be their own, colored by the time lived and not necessarily a part of Stoicism. But the extent to which their views reflected the times they lived or Stoicism in is hard to determine because they did not live in a single point of time either.

These observations may sound trite but it is easy to overlook them.

If we agree that there is no single authoritative work on Stoicism that is still accessible, that the ancient Stoics did not agree among themselves, that they may have said many things that were not rooted in Stoic philosophy itself, and that their thinking may have been colored by the long and varied times they lived in, we can more freely examine what Stoicism actually is.  We don’t have to consider everything that is in Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Seneca’s Epistulae Moralis, or the works of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum as depicting the inviolable tenets of Stoicism. As Seneca says,

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides.[3]

But this begs the question. If there is no authoritative source to refer to, how can we define Stoicism? Stoic minimalism is one approach to this thorny dilemma. It is the exploration of the question of what makes someone a Stoic with minimal assumptions. Because when there is no single authoritative source and no primary sources of different Stoic thinkers, any number of answers is possible. Disagreements far outnumber agreements. So Stoic minimalism asks the more limited question,

What are the fundamental premises with which one has to agree without which one could not be considered a Stoic?

This inverted approach has two advantages. It looks for agreement rather than disagreements among Stoic thinkers and permits the individual thinkers to pick and choose any other part of Stoicism that they find appealing, thus avoiding unnecessary controversies.

Who exactly is a Stoic minimalist?

Metaphorically, a Stoic minimalist is a curious but skeptical onlooker in the ancient agora, walking by the stoa poikile, stopping and listening carefully to the talks by the Stoics, appreciating their importance, and trying to figure out which part of the philosophers’ esoteric talks has any relevance to his (or her) life.

The Stoic minimalist understands (or assumes) that Stoicism is a rational philosophy of life and its purpose is to help anyone live a better life. It is not a religion and, therefore, nothing needs to be taken on faith, although some propositions could be axiomatic. Stoicism is an internally consistent system and no special training in theory outside of its basic framework is necessary to understand and practice its principles. However, the minimalist is less interested in academic distinctions or theoretical arguments that have no bearing on practice. In deciding what to accept, the Stoic minimalist uses following criteria:

  1. Does this concept have applications in real life?

When a concept has no obvious relevance to one’s life, the minimalist is free to ignore it.

  1. Is this concept potentially verifiable and widely accepted as a Stoic principle?

When a concept is not potentially verifiable or not generally regarded as essential to Stoicism, the minimalist is free not to accept it.

  1. Can the concept be interpreted unambiguously?

When the same concept can be interpreted in more than one way, or has multiple explanations, the minimalist feels free to choose the simplest and the most widely applicable one.

  1. Is the concept’s literal translation the same as its intended meaning?

When there is a difference between ‘word-for-word’ and ‘thought-for-thought’ interpretation of the Stoic principles, the minimalist chooses to accept the ‘thought-for-thought’ interpretation.

However,

A Stoic minimalist has no desire to distort Stoic principles. A Stoic minimalist is not a revisionist and is largely faithful to the teachings of Stoic philosophy and tries not to deviate from them except based on pre-specified criteria.

Are Stoic Physics or Logic relevant to a practitioner?

Orthodox Stoics held that Stoicism consisted of three subject areas:

  1. Physics                      How the universe is organized and run.
  2. Logic                           How to establish what is true.
  3. Ethics                         How best to live our lives.

They also believed Stoic physics and Stoic logic provided the foundation of Stoic ethics. So do many current-day academic philosophers such as Lawrence Becker[4], arguably the most prominent of contemporary Stoic theorists. But the contrary perspective that Stoic ethics can stand on its own goes back to the days of Zeno, the founder, and was adopted even before then by the Cynics.

Stoic ethics can be understood and practiced without any reference to Stoic physics or metaphysics, just as a high wire artist can perform extremely well without having any knowledge of the principles of physics that makes his act possible. There is no evidence that proficiency in Stoic physics and logic will make one a better Stoic any more than the knowledge of physics would make a high wire artist a better performer. Besides, many concepts of Stoic physics contradict the findings of modern science. It can also be argued that parts of Stoic arguments are fallacious. But none of these has affected the validity of Stoic ethics.  Stoic ethics has not changed, or has become less valid, because its physics and logic has turned out to be not entirely correct. Not one bit.

Rejecting Stoic physics and logic as non-essential (or even irrelevant) parts of Stoicism, especially for a practitioner, is not a revolutionary idea either. One of Zeno’s major students, Aristo(n) of Chios[5] [6], was one of the earliest Stoics to express this view. This is how Diogenes Laertius describes Aristo’s views:

[Ariston of Chios] wished to discard both Logic and Physics, saying that Physics was beyond our reach and Logic did not concern us: all that did concern us was Ethics. Dialectical reasoning, he said, are like spiders’ webs, which, though they seem to display some artistic workmanship, are yet of no use.[7]

As Brad Inwood (2018) explains it,

Aristo, from the Aegean island of Chios, argued that physical theory (including what we would call metaphysics) and logic were unproductive intellectual indulgences. Opposing him was Cleanthes, who emphasized natural philosophy (physics) and theology as well as ethics and logical theory. The difference between the two foreshadows important later tensions in the school. On one side you have a Large Stoicism, inclusive of all kinds of intellectual activity, arguing that the ultimately ethical goal of philosophy required knowledge across the entire range of topics of intellectual enquiry; this is the line taken by Cleanthes. On the other side you have Minimal Stoicism, the line taken by Aristo; like the Cynics, he focused exclusively on ethics: the practical application of human reason to the job of making one’s life better[8] [9].

As an aside, Aristo was no insignificant Stoic philosopher, but was rather influential for centuries to come. Some scholars[10] [11] reckon that it was the writings of Aristo that finally transformed the 25-year old Marcus Aurelius into a full-fledged philosopher as opposed to being a dabbler in rhetoric, as evidenced in his letter to his rhetoric teacher Marcus Fronto.

The rejection of Stoic physics and logic as something irrelevant to practitioners is as old as Stoicism itself. Or even older than Stoicism if we consider the views of Cynics as well. The Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, of the middle Stoa did not reject Stoic physics or logic, and yet,

[Posidonius] clearly treated ethics as the ultimate point of philosophy.[12]

The last undisputed scholarch

Panaetius ignored Chrysippus and rejected the notion of a phoenix cosmos.[13]

While Roman Stoics such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca did not reject Stoic metaphysics, they did not give prominence to these topics either. The hugely prolific Seneca practically ignores Stoic physics in his writings except for what he says in Naturales quaestiones[14] (which is not a systematic work, but a collection of facts of nature from various writers, Greek and Roman, many of which are curiosities[15]). Epictetus and Marcus mention Stoic physics even less in their writings. Roman Stoics go out of their way to state explicitly (although not too often) that many of these theoretical topics maybe superfluous. Here is Epictetus talking about Stoic metaphysics:

What do I care whether everything that exists is made up of atoms, indivisibles, or fire and earth? … Questions that are beyond our understanding, we should ignore. It may well be that the human mind cannot grasp them. Even if you think they are perfectly understandable, what’s the use of understanding them? Should we not say those who think these things are an essential part of a philosopher’s knowledge are creating unwanted problems for themselves?[16]

Musonius Rufus also talked against the multiplicity of concepts and argued for (what appears to me to be) Stoic minimalism.

Nor is there any need for students to master all this current mass of precepts … These theories are enough to consume a whole lifetime.[17]

We can also find many passages in Meditations that state that Stoic principles will work even if we don’t accept its metaphysics. For example,

Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?[18]

Of course, there is the academic contention that we need Stoic physics and Stoic logic because they provide the foundation for Stoicism.[19] Without necessarily challenging that point of view, I would like to relate my personal experience[20] as a practitioner. While I have been familiar with Stoicism for decades, I have not read much about Stoic physics and Stoic logic until last year. After studying Stoic physics and Stoic logic more closely last year (Including a full length book on Stoic Physics[21]) I can confidently say my understanding of Stoicism has not increased any more than it did after reading one of the Harry Potter books.  In my view, for a practitioner, neither Stoic physics/metaphysics nor Stoic logic adds anything useful to the understanding of Stoicism. Going back to my analogy, physics has nothing to teach a high wire artist on how to perform well.

Stoicism has also been acknowledged as the source of some models of psychotherapy, most prominently Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive and Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is also used by the US military and the NHS in the UK. In all these cases (where the application of Stoic principles is the focus), Stoic physics or logic plays – and can play – no part. I believe it is fair to say that the resurgence of Stoicism in the past decade is largely due to practitioners for whom Stoic physics and logic hold no relevance.

Because the minimalist believes that Stoic ethics is a self-contained system that can be built on verifiable and self-evident truths (or on axioms if necessary), she avoids all religious and metaphysical explanations in preference to potentially provable propositions. (A Stoic minimalist, however, is not necessarily against religion or metaphysics.)

Stoic ethics is a self-c0ntained logical system. For a minimalist, Stoic ethics is a rational, self-contained system that can be built from the first principles and the essence of Stoicism can be found only in Stoic ethics rather in physics or logic.

What Did Stoics Mean by Ethics, God, Virtue and Nature?

Ancient Stoics used four concepts repeatedly: god, ethics, virtue and nature.  What did they mean by these words? It is not a question of simple translation. Meanings of words change over time. When, in a Sherlock Holmes’ story, Conan Doyle described someone as ‘gay’, he certainly did not mean homosexual. It gets more complicated when we try to translate 2,000-year old Greek or Latin[22] into 21st Century English. Even scholarly translations run into problems such as these:

  • Should we translate words as they were written, or as they were understood at that time or as they mean now?
  • If an expression meant something different when it was written, should the translator still use the same expression or its equivalent today?
  • If a word-for-word translation makes a passage difficult to understand (because of the differences between ancient Greek or Latin and modern English), should a translator still stick to the way it was written or change it so the meaning and import of the passage is better understood?
  • What do we do with the gaps in ancient texts and corruption of textual material, as is the case with Meditations and other ancient Stoic works?

These are not just theoretical issues. As an example, both Amy Richlin[23] and C.R. Haines[24] translated Marcus Aurelius – Fronto communications ‘word-for-word’. However, because Richlin uses current slang where Haines uses Victorian slang, their translations read differently, in some places substantially so. Because of their different perspectives, in some places where Haines’ translation (which is titled Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence) is flat, Richlin’s (which is titled Marcus Aurelius in Love) is lurid.

When we come to words with religious and moral overtones such as god, ethics and virtue, the issue gets more complicated. Does it make sense to understand these terms as we commonly understand them now? The minimalist believes that ancient Stoic writings were not religious scriptures. If we are to understand the essence of Stoicism, we should be less concerned about the exact words that ancient Stoics used, but interpret them to correspond to what they would mean now. Let’s start with ethics.

Ethics, as we understand the word now, relates to moral right and wrong. However, Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy and its goal is eudemonia (happiness or the good life, however one defines it). Stoic ethics was not concerned with moral right or wrong. What is ethical is whatever contributes to eudemonia. What is unethical is whatever doesn’t contribute to eudemonia.

STOIC ETHICS. The minimalist holds whatever contributes to happiness (eudemonia) as ethical and whatever moves away from happiness as not ethical. 

Similar to ethics, ‘virtue’ has also moral and religious overtones. What did ancient Stoics mean by virtue? According to many Stoic scholars such as Christopher Gill[25], “virtue is a form of expertise or skill, knowledge of how to live well.”

STOIC VIRTUE. The minimalist accepts the definition that Stoic virtue is the knowledge needed to achieve happiness.

Ancient Stoics are considered to be pantheists. Christopher Gill[26] says that god in Stoicism stands for the “inherent rationality and order” of the universe. For the ancient Stoics god is the totality of nature. If god is the totality of nature and its ‘inherent rationality and order’, the term ‘god’ can be interpreted as ‘the way things are’ or ‘the way things work’. Yet, when one read a passage like this in Discourses,

How else could it come about so regularly … when he [god] tells plants to flower they flower, and to bud,  they bud, and bear fruit, they bear it, and to bring their fruit to ripeness, it ripens … how else could it be that the moon waxes and wanes and the sun approaches and recedes …[27]

the image it evokes is of a god that is no different from the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible (and many other religious traditions).  It appears that god has intent and he tells the universe what to do. From this perspective, the description of god as seen in the writing of Stoics like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus can hardly be distinguished from any other description of god (except that the Stoic god is not vengeful, does not punish or reward human beings.)

The philosopher Plotinus who was, among other things, influenced by Stoicism even doubts if the ancient Stoics truly believed in god and offered this assessment:

[The Stoics] bring in god for the sake of appearances.[28]

What does this all mean to a Stoic minimalist? Can an atheist or agnostic be a Stoic?

Stoicism is a prescription for action, no matter what happens or how it happens. So it doesn’t matter why something happened. . In this vivid passage, Marcus Aurelius dismisses – even mocks – our preoccupation with theory and points out that practice of Stoic ethics is all that matters.

The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out.

There are brambles in the path? Then go around them.

That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.

Don’t demand to know “why such things exist.”[29]

What we have control over is only what we are going to do next. Viewed this way, whether god made something happen or something happened randomly is of no importance to a Stoic. Either way, we have no control over the way things presented to us by the universe.

GOD. The minimalist views god as nothing more than things being the way they are.

To a minimalist, it matters little whether a Stoic believes in god or is an atheist or is an agnostic. It has no bearing on the practice of Stoicism.

The Stoic premise of living in accordance with ‘nature’ is a vague idea. But Stoics defined this in specific ways. In fact, Stoics talked about several types of “nature” that one should be ‘in accordance with’, using a process known as reconciliation. Hierocles[30] argued that there were four types of reconciliation corresponding to the four cardinal virtues: self-reconciliation (wisdom), social reconciliation (justice), bodily reconciliation (courage), and external reconciliation (moderation). In short, we should live in accordance with human nature and the nature of this universe. Thus, to live without friction, we need to cultivate two types of accordance:  accordance with human nature and accordance with the nature of the world.

What is in accordance with human nature? The thing that sets human beings apart from other animals is rationality.[31] So to live according to nature is to live rationally. What is in accordance with the external world? It is accepting whatever happens as a given. Thus one who acts in accordance with nature acts rationally and does not struggle against reality.

STOIC ‘NATURE’. To the minimalist, ‘living in accordance with nature’ means accepting the world as is (over which they have no control) and acting rationally in response to what is (over which they do).

 What Exactly is Stoic Minimalism?

So far we have discussed,

  1. Stoic ethics is the essence of Stoicism and it is eminently capable of standing on its own, without having to be propped up by Stoic physics, metaphysics and other gobbledygook;
  2. Stoic concepts like god, nature, ethics and virtue are better understood if we use their modern thought-equivalents rather than word-equivalents.

Now we are ready to explore the contents of Stoic minimalism.

The basic principle that has been around since the founding of Stoicism – the dichotomy of control – can be considered the cornerstone of Stoicism, summarized succinctly by Epictetus:

  1. Some things are up to us and others are not. [We can achieve happiness by confining our thoughts and actions to what is under our control.]

This first principle – that we can achieve happiness or Eudemonia[32] by confining our thoughts and actions to things under our control (‘up to us’) and ignoring what are not (‘not up to us’) – contains the wisdom needed to achieve happiness, but we cannot achieve it by directly pursuing it, because doing so will have unintended consequences (such as overindulgence, uncontrolled greed, antisocial behavior, attaching too much importance to transient pleasures, etc.,) that may lead one in the opposite direction. Directly going after happiness is not the way to achieve it.

  1. One cannot achieve happiness by directly pursuing it.[33]

So what is the way to achieve it? The practice of excellence. Eudemonia or ‘excellent disposition of the soul’[34] is the result of pursuing excellence (virtue) and this is all we need to concern ourselves with and it is the only good. But if the aim of Stoicism is achieving happiness, how can practicing excellence be the only good? There are many answers to this.[35] [36]  One way to look at this is to consider our natural state as eudemonic. To achieve it, all we need to do is to remove hindrances to it through pursuing excellence. We don’t have to do anything. As we remove the hindrances (or vices) of foolishness, injustice, cowardice, intemperance and the rest, we achieve the eudemonic state.[37]

  1. Practicing excellence is the only good.

The corollary to the third principle is that, to achieve excellence as conceived by Stoicism, we need special knowledge in four different areas: self, others, our desires and our aversions. The special knowledge we need is wisdom (in all our dealings), justice (in dealing with others), moderation (in dealing with our desires), and courage (in dealing with our aversions). Having these four types of special knowledge or virtues together leads to excellence.

3a. Excellence is achieved through four types of special knowledge: wisdom, justice, moderation and courage.

This, in my view, is Stoic minimalism. Rationality is the principle, virtue is the means, and eudemonia is the end. Anyone who accepts these three principles, in my opinion, is a Stoic irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with anything else about Stoicism.

When we thus cut out the dead bark of Stoic physics, logic and religiosity, “its paradoxes, and the willful misuse of language, … its extravagance,” [38] and get rid of our devotion to a literal interpretation of what was spoken 2,000 years ago in a different time, a different culture, and a different place, out comes a shiny, timeless philosophy of the essence of Stoic wisdom, Stoic minimalism.

I don’t profess to be a Stoic (or any other kind of) scholar. So let me stand back and give the final word on Stoic minimalism to the well-known Stoic scholar, Brad Inwood:

The narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.[39]

That is also my response to the critics of Stoic minimalism who are dismissive of it as just “life-hacking” and not “real Stoicism”.

NOTES

[1] John M. Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom. Princeton University Press, 2013.

[2] Even though the available works of Epicurus are also limited, they are consistent because they are the work of single person.

[3] Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11

[4] Lawrence Becker. A New Stoicism. 2nd edition. 2018.

[5] Ariston of Chios. Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

[6] Different from similar sounding Aristo(n) of Ceos, a Peripatetic philosopher.

[7] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII.161.

[8] Brad Inwood, Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

[9] Also see Introduction. Stoicism: An Intellectual Odyssey in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Edited by Brad Inwood, Cambridge University Press. 2003.

[10] C.R. Haines. Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library, 1919,  see footnote 1 on page 218.

[11] Amy Richlin. Marcus Aurelius in Love. The University of Chicago Press, 2006, see endnote 12 on page 142.

[12] Brad Inwood, A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

[13] M. Andrew Holochuk. The Stoics: A Guide to the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2008. (Panaetius did not reject Stoic physics completely but did not accept Chrysippus’ version of it. What is of relevance here is that no matter who believed what version of Stoic physics, it made zero difference to Stoic ethics.)

[14] Seneca, Natural Questions, Volume I: Books 1-3 & 4-7. Tr. Thomas Corcoran, Loeb Classical Library. 1971

[15] From the Wikipedia entry Naturales quaestiones.

[16] Epictetus, Fragments. (Emphasis mine.)

[17] Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.

[18] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IX.39

[19] See for example, Massimo Pigliucci. How to be a Stoic, 2018. Basing his arguments on Pierre Hadot’s original exposition (The Inner Citadel, 1998), Pigliucci makes the point that discipline of desire and the virtues that relate to them (courage and temperance) are based on Stoic physics. Even if this is true, it does not follow that Stoic ethics can only be derived from Stoic physics and Stoic logic, and not in any other way. A sufficient condition cannot be assumed be a necessary condition.

[20] I acknowledge the fact that personal experience is not proof. But, I don’t think it is totally irrelevant to the discussion either.

[21] Samuel Sambursky, Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 2016.

[22] Some scholars argue that while this is a problem with ancient Greek, it is not so with Latin. But as I point out elsewhere in this article, ancient Latin texts are not totally exempt from multiple interpretations.

[23] Amy Richlin. Marcus Aurelius in Love. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[24] C.R. Haines. Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence Vol. I & II. Loeb Classical Library, 1919.

[25] Christopher Gill, What is Stoic Virtue? Modern Stoicism, 2015. (http://modernstoicism.com/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/)

[26] Christopher Gill, in Introduction to The Discourses (Tr. Robin Hard), London: J. Dent, 1995.

[27] Epictetus. The Discourses I.14.3 (Tr. Robin Hard), London: J. Dent, 1995.

[28] Plotinus. The Philosophy of Plotinus: Representative books from the Enneads. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950.

[29] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VII.50. (Tr. Gregory Hayes),

[30] Ramelli, I. (2009). Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Translated by D. Konstan. Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta, GA.

[31] Epictetus. Discourses I.1.

[32] Eudemonia (eu=good, daimonia=spirited) is a single concept with multiple shades of meaning. For example, when Socrates, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi were thrown in prison, they had means of not being imprisoned in the first place or means of getting out. They chose not to because doing so would have put them in conflict with their nature and made them unhappy. In fact, Gandhi told the judge that he had no option but to send him to jail, which he was willing to accept completely, if the judge believed the law to be just. So what, to an outsider, is an unflourishing life was indeed a flourishing one for them. They did not consider a preferred indifferent as the source of their happiness.

[33] The idea that happiness cannot be achieved by directly pursuing it is a recurring theme in many disciplines. For example, John Stuart Mill, while discussing Utilitarianism, has this to say on happiness: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” John Stuart Mill , The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. e-artnow, 2017

[34] John Sellers. Stoicism. University of California Press, 2006.

[35] Mark Tullius Cicero. Paradoxa Stoicorum.

[36] A. A. Long (ed.) Problems in Stoicism, London: Athlone, 1971.

[37] This is not one of the standard explanations. A Stoic minimalist is free not to accept it as there are many alternative explanations.

[38] St. George Stock. A Little Book of Stoicism. Ten Cent Pocket Series No. 347.

[39] Brad Inwood, A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

 

Chuck Chakrapani is President of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. He is the author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life and several other books on Stoicism.  He is also the founder of the Stoic Gym website.

Stoic Week 2018 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so.  Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class.  Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports.  This is the first report for this year.

 

Stoic Week is over, we hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles reporting on what we  learnt from it. Today we have answers to the following questions

  • How many people took part? Were there more men or women? Which gender is more Stoic?
  • How old are the participants of Stoic Week? Do you get more Stoic as you get older?
  • Which countries took part and which countries are the most (and least) Stoic?
  • Do people take part in Stoic Week more than once? Are people more Stoic the more times they do Stoic Week?
  • Why do people take part in Stoic week?

How many people took part? Were there more men or women? Which gender is more Stoic?

Gender Total 2018

%

2017

%

2016

%

Average SABS score

2018

Male 2283 62 65 66 373
Female 1375 37 34 33 368
Decline to state 27 1 1 1 (364)
Other 21 1 0.5 (383)

Table 1: Stoic Week 2018 by gender  (*Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

  • More people completed the Stoic Week questionnaires than in 2017. 3899  people did so, an increase from 2860 in 2017 which was more than the 1798 in 2016. This was despite a longer SABS questionnaire to complete and the requirement to ask for GDPR consent. 3555 did not finish the questionnaires although they started and only 196 denied consent. This gives a total figure for 7650 people who accessed the questionnaires.
  • The ratio of males to females was 62% to 37%. This compared with 65% to 34% last year showing a slight increase in number of females talking part.
  • Men were marginally more Stoic then women as measured by SABS scored, though those who identified as “Other” ((admittedly a very small sample) were the most Stoic.

How old are the participants of Stoic Week? Do you get more Stoic as you get older?

Age 2018

%

2017

%

2016

%

Average SABS score 2018
Over 65 7 381
56-65 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55) 381
46-55 20 18 17 375
36-45 22 22 21 372
26-35 23 27 25 366
18-25 13 15 22 366
Under 18 1 1 1 (369)

Table 2: A wide range of ages take part in Stoic Week. It does seem that you get more Stoic as you get older.

 Which countries too part and which countries are the most (and least) Stoic?

Country No % Average SABS Score
United States 1388 37 382
United Kingdom 832 22 363
Canada 310 8 377
Australia 158 4 376
Germany 155 4 356
Russian Federation 75 2 346
Netherlands 68 2 358
France 61 2 370
Spain 39 1 372
Ireland {Republic} 38 1 384
Sweden 34 1 364
New Zealand 31 1 363
Switzerland 31 1 361
Brazil 30 1 366
South Africa 29 1 379
Italy 23 1 370
Ukraine 22 1 344
Denmark 19 1 364
Poland 19 1 368
Belgium 18 0 369
China 17 0 376
India 17 0 376
Argentina 16 0 374
Finland 16 0 355
Austria 15 0 369
Portugal 15 0 377
Japan 14 0 376
Mexico 13 0 386
Norway 13 0 372
Czech Republic 12 0 335
Israel 12 0 363
Singapore 11 0 402

Table 3: Stoic Week 2018 by country

For the first time we obtained specific country data. Table 3 shows all countries with more than 10 participants in Stoic Week. Of these, the most Stoic were Singapore, Mexico, the Irish Republic and the United States. Least Stoic were the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Do people take part in Stoic Week more than once? Are people more Stoic if they’ve taken part a number of times?

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously 2018% 2017% 2016

%

SABS
0 73 79 77 366
1 17 13 14 384
2 6 5 6 396
3 3 2 3 399
4 or more 2 1 1 423

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2018 : Previous participation

More than 70% of participants are first-timers, but those who do take part appear to be significantly more Stoic as a result.

How much do participants say they know about Stoicism?

Knowledge of Stoicism 2018 2017%  2016   % SABS
None 10 9 11 348
Novice 28 30 33 359
I know a bit 42 41 39 374
I know quite a bit but not an expert 19 19 16 398
Expert .8 0.5 1 429

Table 5: Stoic Week 2018

Most people say that know a bit about Stoicism, which as many as 10% doing Stoic Week without knowing anything about it. There is a strong association between how much people know about Stoicism and how Stoic they are according to the SABS.

Identification with being a Stoic 2018 SABS
Definitely not a Stoic 6 335
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 10 347
Neutral or I don’t know 37 356
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 38 388
I consider myself to be a Stoic

 

11 421

Table 5: How Stoic do  participants rate themselves? How closely does this connect with their SABS score?

For the first time, we asked people to what extent they identified as  a Stoic. Interestingly, about the same number are neutral as think they are more Stoic than not Stoic. A relatively small number consider themselves to be a Stoic whilst as many as 6% are doing Stoic week despite definitely not being a Stoic, which is perhaps surprising.

Why did people take part in Stoic week?

Below is the “word cloud” for the reasons given for taking part in Stoic Week.

Recent Blog Pieces on Stoicon 2018

This year, at Stoicon 2018 in London (organized by John Sellars, assisted by Amy Valladres) , we again hosted over 300 participants and fielded a number of talks and workshops!  In the weeks following, quite a few people wrote about their experiences at the conference, the conversations they had, the talks or workshops they attended, and what they learned.

Since Stoicon is one of the main events planned and put on every year by the Modern Stoicism organization, I thought what these participants had to say would likely be of interest to our readership, particularly those who could not attend the conference.

Below is a list of the longer pieces about Stoicon 2018 out there at present.  Several are in other languages, but if you can’t read those, there’s always the translate function in your browser, or Google Translate!

Retour sur la Stoicon 2018 à Londres by “Zenon” (in French).  This is a quite detailed, very thorough, in-depth overview of each portion of the conference, from the first session to the plenary address.  A host of excellent photos as well.  In my view, if you read only one piece on the conference, this is the one to select.

Londyński zlot stoików by Piotr Stankiewicz (in Polish).  I don’t read Polish (unfortunately), but I do know Piotr, so I had a strong sense it was going to be good.  When I was able to read this piece in translation, that was the case.  A good discussion of the plurality of modern Stoicism

What the Hell is Stoicon? by the author of “The Will To Freedom” blog.  Another excellent overview of the event, along with some background and a discussion about travel as well.

So far, I haven’t seen any other longer pieces discussing the conference.  If I’ve missed any, by all means, send them my way, and I’ll read them, then add them to this listing of recommended posts.

On Judge Kavanaugh, and Why We Need a Stoic Sage on the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Pies

Americans seem to agree on very little, these days, as was vividly demonstrated by the recent appointment of Judge Bret Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I suspect that almost any American acquainted with the term “stoic” would agree that Judge Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee1 was, well— not very “stoical.”

To be sure: Kavanaugh was dealing with a situation that virtually anyone would find emotionally overwhelming, and that few of us could face with equanimity. And yet, I want to argue that the kind of person we need on the Supreme Court is one who embodies the even temperament and high moral values of the ancient Stoic philosophers.

But wait—aren’t “stoics” people who deliberately quash all their emotions and never allow themselves to feel joy or sadness?  Aren’t they, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, obsessed with logic at the expense of intuition and empathy? Why would we ever want such an emotionally stunted individual on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, after all, deals with such emotionally-charged issues as abortion, religious freedom, and gun control?

But, as most readers of this website know, the popular stereotype of Stoics and Stoicism is far removed from the school of philosophy that flourished in ancient Athens and Rome, and which profoundly influenced modern-day figures like Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who endured seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.2,3

No, the ancient Stoics—men like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca—did not believe in suppressing emotion or eradicating joy and sadness. Rather, they argued that maintaining the proper mental attitude would lead, quite naturally, to a state of equanimity and emotional balance. The proper attitude, for the Stoic sage, meant seeing the world for what it is: a place filled with unpleasant people and events, but also a place of joy—if only we keep a clear head, and act in accordance with Nature and virtue.  For the Stoic, it is not things or events or people that upset and unhinge us, but our attitude toward these things. As Marcus puts it:

Things do not touch the soul…our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within…4

The Stoics placed little value on material possessions, fame, or wealth, arguing that acting in accordance with virtue was the only lasting and genuine good. Indeed, the Roman statesman Seneca taught that:

A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.5

The Stoics had a keen awareness of human mortality, and its central role in shaping our behavior. Marcus Aurelius cautioned that:

since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.4

Finally, the Stoics believed in the sacredness of the common bond that unites all human beings. As Marcus Aurelius put it:

A man’s joy is to do what is proper to man, and man’s proper work is kindness to his fellow man.6

Some people link the Stoics with a kind of fatalism or determinism—as if the Stoics believed we must accept things as they are, no matter how bad, and have little power to change them. This, too, is a misunderstanding of Stoicism. It’s true that the Stoics saw the universe as strictly governed by the law of cause and effect. But as the scholar of Stoicism, A.A. Long has pointed out:

…fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do.  We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we [make] and by the responses we give to our circumstances.7

The Stoics firmly believed in opposing cruelty and injustice, while also acknowledging that sometimes our best efforts will fail.8

 Judge Kavanaugh Measured Against the Stoics

Now as to Judge Kavanaugh: I do not know whether he does, or does not, embody Stoic virtues in his everyday life, or in his approach to interpreting the law. Yet for me, as an ethicist—and entirely apart from the allegations of sexual abuse made against him— Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised serious questions regarding his temperament and character. The historian Nils Gilman, writing in The American Interest, makes important points about the kind of person we ought to appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a number of quintessentially Stoic traits. A Supreme Court justice, Gilman writes,

…must be above suspicion, at numerous levels. Politically, they must seem reasonable and neutral. Intellectually, they must be clear and open-minded. Morally, they must be above reproach… Instead [in Judge Kavanaugh], we were greeted by a man barely able to contain his emotions, claiming partisan victimhood, and all but explicitly vowing revenge. This…was simply an unacceptable moral posture for anyone seeking a Supreme Court appointment, regardless of the underlying truth of the charges leveled against him. What Kavanaugh’s speech indicated—what it in fact performed—was a traducing of the moral values we expect a Supreme Court justice to embody: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and yes, sobriety (in the moral sense). Even if he was a man wronged, Kavanaugh’s conduct was, to use a moral concept often deployed in the military, “unbecoming” of a Supreme Court Justice.9

The Stoic Sage and the Supreme Court

In an important discussion of the “Stoic Sage”, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci raises many caveats, if not objections, regarding the whole notion of the “Sage.”10 He cites the wonderfully acerbic comment by Cicero:

It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence. (On Divination 2.61).

For the Stoics, perhaps Socrates came as close to being a Sage as was humanly possible.

Notwithstanding these concerns, we can arrive at least a rough “character sketch” of the Stoic Sage, in terms relevant to the sort of person we ought to seek for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. A short list of requisite traits would surely include the five cited by Gilman: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety. But a much more comprehensive list can be extrapolated from the virtues Marcus Aurelius lists, at the beginning of his Meditations. (These are essentially the principles of character and comportment that Marcus himself absorbed from the most important people in his life). As I would summarize the most important of these character traits, they include:

  • Showing good morals and the governance of one’s temper
  • Acting with modesty
  • Showing piety, beneficence, and abstinence (not only from evil deeds, but from evil thoughts), and simplicity in one’s way of living
  • Avoiding partisanship (“…to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights…”)
  • Enduring labor and having few desires
  • Refraining from meddling in other people’s affairs, or readily listening to
  • Not busying oneself about trifling things
  • Refraining from showing oneself off as a disciplined and benevolent person
  • Being easily pacified and reconciled with respect to those who have offended one, once they have shown a readiness to be reconciled
  • Maintaining undeviating steadiness of purpose, and remaining oneself, even under adverse conditions (“…to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness…”)
  • Looking to nothing else but reason as a guide
  • Being both “most resolute” and yet yielding, and not peevish in giving instruction
  • Conveying gravity without affectation
  • Looking carefully after the interests of friends, and tolerating ignorant persons, and “those who form opinions without consideration”.
  • Never showing anger or any other passion, yet being affectionate toward others
  • Refraining from fault-finding and chiding others in a reproachful way
  • Loving truth and justice, and respecting the freedom of the governed
  • Maintaining cheerfulness, mildness of temper, sweetness and dignity, in all circumstances; and doing one’s duty without complaining
  • Taking reasonable care of one’s bodily health
  • Being “…able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess.”

[Quoted material is from the translation by George Long 4]

I leave the reader to decide how close Judge Kavanagh came to evincing one or more of these traits in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (A full transcript of his opening statement and a short video clip are available online, via the New York Times11). My own impression of Kavanagh’s demeanor and comportment before the Committee is similar to that of Nils Gilman. I do not believe that Judge Kavanagh demonstrated anything like “solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety.”

That said, it is possible that in his comportment “on the bench”, and in the substance of his judicial rulings, Kavanagh exhibits some or even all of the traits Marcus Aurelius embraced. Certainly, some colleagues have attested to Kavanagh’s good character. For example, Sarah Day, who worked with Kavanagh at the White House between 2002-2006, described him as:

…smart, funny and kind. He is generous with his time, compassionate towards others, diligent in his work, and the kind of person you hope will advance to the highest levels of his profession…He is a thoughtful leader, a champion of others, and exactly the type of person you hope would be nominated to the position of associate justice.12

Perhaps. We will need to reserve final judgment until we have more “observational data”, based on Kavanagh’s comportment, demeanor, and, of course, the quality and tenor of his judicial decisions, after sufficient time on the Supreme Court. Indeed, a rush to judgment would be both unfair and “un-Stoic”. As Marcus cautions us:

A man must be well informed of many points, before he can pronounce surely about the actions of others. (Meditations, Book 11, no. 18).13

That said, it remains unclear whether, in approving Kavanagh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate was “well informed of many points”, or whether it acted largely out of haste, passion, and ignorance.

 

References

  1. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/27/652366140/kavanaugh-and-christine-blasey-ford-testify-before-senate-judiciary-committee
  2. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/how-to-be-a-stoic/?_r=0
  3. https://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/stoicism1.pdf
  4. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by G. Long. Boston, Shambhala, 1993. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.1.one.html
  5. Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969.
  6. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Translated by A.S.L. Farquharson. New York. Knopf, 1946.
  7. https://modernstoicism.com/stoicisms-ancient-and-modern-by-tony-a-a-long/
  8. Pies R: Everything Has Two Handles. Hamilton Books, 2008
  9. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/10/03/being-morally-serious-about-the-supreme-court/
  10. http://brewminate.com/on-the-nature-of-the-stoic-sage/
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html
  12. https://www.centralmaine.com/2018/09/10/another-view-above-all-else-kavanaugh-a-good-man/
  13. http://files.libertyfund.org/files/2133/Aurelius_1464_LFeBk.pdf

Ronald Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine. He is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

The One Habit of a Highly Successful Stoic by Brian Earl Johnson

The Quest to Get Organized

When I was starting graduate school, I was very concerned about how I was going to manage it all. I had already worked hard as an undergraduate, sometimes juggling six classes a semester. But, I knew that the workload was about to get tougher because I was headed off to a graduate school that proudly sold t-shirts emblazoned with “Where fun goes to die” and “Hell does freeze over.”

Detecting my uncertainty, a buddy recommended that I get organized with a day planner. He was a fan of the Franklin Planner system and he urged me to take the seminar. I definitely like what I saw in the seminar, especially its emphasis on determining what my values are. Since I was already planning on studying philosophy with an emphasis on ancient ethics, I felt entirely comfortable defining my values. One of the clearest then was a commitment to lifelong learning.

While the Franklin Planner brought some measure of order in all I had to do, something wasn’t quite working, either. The paper planner was cumbersome, especially since it had two full pages for each day. Since it made sense to carry a full semester or quarter at a time, it was a heavy book that had to go around with me to my classes. At that time, there were certainly electronic organizers (Palm Pilots), but I did not find those satisfactory either. Paper was both tactile and larger so it engaged my senses better; I have felt vindicated about that dissatisfaction now that an emerging set of studies show that we learn better when we write by hand and when we use printed books as opposed to ebooks.

And, something else was awkward for me with the planner: as a student, my schedule was relatively fixed so the primary “action” of my planner was in the sprawling to do list. In the paper planner, the to do list is kept in a kind of bookmark that one moves with each day. My list felt out of control because it was constantly having new items (such as reading assignments or test preparation) and it seemed so Sisyphean to keep re-writing it on new cardstock.

In my third year of graduate school, two books came my way at just the right time to help me solve this ongoing puzzle about how to organize my life.

First, I read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read the book because I had decided to work over the summer at a retail store where the Franklin Planner company sold their products. The had merged with Stephen Covey’s organization to become Franklin-Covey. (Although they are now out of the brick and mortar storefronts, the company remains by having returned to its roots in offering seminars on getting organized). I liked many ideas contained therein from the so-called “big rocks” exercise to its approach to negotiating: win-win or no deal

But, I was most taken with how Covey approached getting organized. Not only did he prefer the broader week-at-a-glance approach, but he urged that we organize our life around our roles. He writes that

We each have a number of different roles in our lives – different areas or capacities in which we have responsibility. I may, for example, have a role as an individual, a husband, a father, a teacher, a church member, and a businessman. And each of these roles is important.” (from the chapter, “Begin with the End in Mind”)

He adds that, when we draw up a mission statement for our lives (a common practice in the “get organized” literature), we should look at each of your roles. “What are the values that should guide you [in those roles]?”

Second, in my Greek reading group at school, I was assigned the job of translating and commenting on Epictetus’ Discourses 1.2, “How may a man preserve his roles on every occasion?” That discourse resonated powerfully with the approach I had already learned from Covey. I had been experimenting with organizing my life around my roles and I had found, exactly as Epictetus declared in Discourses 2.10 that once we know our roles, it is often immediately obvious what to do. In turn, this role-bound approach helped me to see with greater clarity what was more important (as opposed to what was merely urgent but not important) — another helpful idea I had picked up from Covey.

It was the confluence of these two books that started me on my path of researching Epictetus, eventually yielding my own book on him, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life.

The Habit of Epictetus: Identify and Prioritize Your Important Roles

Foundational to Epictetus’ account of roles is his distinction between two sets of roles: one set contains a single member, our role as a human being. The other set includes the myriad of our specific roles such as sister, brother, citizen, teacher, soldier, and so on. These latter roles entail natural relations of family but also acquired roles of marriage, friendship, and our profession.

From the get go, Epictetus insists that our human role is the most fundamental and we must never compromise our humanity — lest we become wild beasts, sheep, or worms. This role requires that we must act as human beings. For ancient philosophers, being human is a normative concept: a human being is not whatever a human being does. If we act like beasts, for example, we have failed our humanity and become no better (if not worse) than a dumb animal. For a Stoic, that is a fate worse than death.

What does our role as a human being require of us? Here are some highlights according to Epictetus:

—To be rational. Epictetan rationality has both an internal and an external aspect. Internally, rationality pertains to how we use our mind; we must be logical. Externally, rationality means that we deal with each other by means of persuasion instead of by the fist. Of course, I may have to raise my own fist to protect myself against those who are blatantly irrational, but force is always the last recourse. Animals, by contrast, have violence as their first and only recourse.

—To act as a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism was first explicitly identified as a virtue by Diogenes the Cynic, but it was the Stoics who made it a universal value. We should all recognize that we are citizens of the world first and then, secondarily, citizens of some local state.

—To treat externals as indifferent. The Stoics readily accept that life presents us with a wide array of preferables (health, political freedom, family, etc.) and we should pursue them. But, we should not, they held, treat such externals as ethical goods. By this stance, he believes, we preserve our volition and our inner freedom. We also eliminate the passions.

—To engage in self-reflection, that is, to examine our actions from an ethical point of view.

About our various specific roles, Epictetus has much to say, but I would like to extract two key ideas for this blog post.

First, Epictetus is emphatic that we limit our specific roles to our capacities, to what we can do. He considers this aspect utilizing both a humble and a grand-scale example. On the humble scale, he talks with a man who unrealistically fantasizes about outfitting his city with civic structures because it has need of them. Epictetus replies that the city also has need of shoemakers and blacksmiths. It is:

sufficient if each man fulfill his own proper function … ‘What place, then, shall I have in the State? says he. Whatever place you can have and at the same time maintain the man of fidelity and self-respect that is in you. (Handbook, 24.4, Oldfather translation)

Epictetus similarly wonders about the grand-scale role of Socrates, a role that demanded immense prowess. In looking to that role, Epictetus urges us to recognize that not all horses can become swift (Discourses 1.2.24). We should recognize that Socrates was a kind of Olympian of the spirit and surely only a few have the talents to compete in the Olympics.

In both cases, I am reminded of Cal Newport’s iconoclastic book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You in which he argues, in almost Stoic fashion, that basing your career on passion is dangerous. Newport urges that we should adopt the mindset of a craftsman who utilizes deliberate practice to make his abilities so good one can’t be ignored. Or, as Epictetus puts it:
Yet a bull does not become a bull all at once, any more than a man becomes noble, but a man must undergo a winter training, he must prepare himself and must not plunge recklessly into what is inappropriate for him. (
Discourses 1.2.32).

Second, these roles define who we are and they are absolutely worth living for and dying for. This life and death language is especially dramatic in Discourses 1.2 where Epictetus is debating about an imperial order that all philosophers shave their beards. For Epictetus, a philosopher’s beard has the same status as, say, a modern Sikh and his beard and turban. Epictetus sardonically observes that the Emperor may cut off Epictetus’ head but not his philosopher’s beard because Epictetus’ role is not up to the Emperor (1.2.28-29). In much the same way, Epictetus praises the Olympic athlete who chose death rather than a life-saving medical castration because such s castration would have meant giving up his role as an Olympian (1.2.25-26). Better a dead Olympian, than a role-less man.

Epictetan Success

By appealing to our roles, Epictetus has hit upon a language that his listeners evidently found meaningful and intuitive. Given the popularity of Stephen Covey’s work, this role language still resonates. We should ask, then, what is the highly successful Stoic? On Epictetus’ terms, such a Stoic is four things:

  1. One is fundamentally a good person because one’s humanity is the bedrock of all action.
  2. One is a motivated person; that is, one is motivated to realize one’s roles because it is essential to who one is. Our roles determine what we see as reasonable or unreasonable. Epictetus points out how we can endure anything we find to be reasonable (1.2.1-8).
  3. One is a realistic person; by selecting roles that match our talents, we set realistic goals about what success for us should look like. In rather inspirational language he says, “For I shall not be a Milo [a great wrestler] … and yet I do not neglect my body ; nor a Croesus [an extremely wealthy King], and yet I do not neglect my property ; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest” (1.2.37)
  4. One is a patient person; what matters is playing one’s role well. “Remember that you are an actor in a play … For this is your business, to play admirably the role assigned you …” (Ench. 17)

Roles without Stoicism?

Although Epictetus was quite the purist about Stoicism and he could be quite austere — even morbid (cf. fragment 26) — in his advice, he seems to have been open to the possibility that appealing to roles is meaningful even for those who are not Stoics.

Epictetus reveals this side when he says: 

for I should not be unfeeling like a statue,  but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen” (3.2.4; my translation).

And, he puts that into practice in Discourses 1.11, “Of family affection,” when he talks with a father who ran away (owing to grief) from a sick daughter. It would have been all too easy for Epictetus to tell this father that his daughter is not a good, that she is a matter of indifference (cp. 3.3.5-10). Instead, he engages the father (dare I say with empathy?) in an exchange about what it is most natural for a father to do: to care for his child.

This side of Epictetus has always been welcome news to me since I do not, in fact, consider myself a Stoic. But, in committing myself to the fulfillment of my roles, I readily consider myself an Epictetan. It was Covey who taught me that roles are the key to getting organized, but it was Epictetus who taught me that roles are the key to realizing virtue.

 

Brian Earl Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2007 and specializes in ancient Greek and Roman ethics. Johnson is the author of The Role Ethics of Epictetus. He has contributed an essay, “The American Diogenes: Mark Twain’s Sacred Profanity” in the volume, Mark Twain and Philosophy. He also appears in chapter 2 in Mark Adam’s hilarious book, Meet Me In Atlantis; therein, Adams and Johnson discuss the origin of the Atlantis myth in Plato.

Stoicisms Ancient and Modern by Tony (A.A.) Long

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  This year, I am particularly pleased to be able to start that series with the talk given by our keynote speaker, who generously provided the full transcript of his talk in advance! – G. Sadler, Editor

 

Hello everyone! This is my first Stoicon – my first encounter with people who are seriously committed to living a modern version of ancient Stoicism day by day.   It’s great to be here and to have the opportunity of sharing some Stoic thoughts with you. I am truly amazed and delighted at how this event and “Modern Stoicism” have caught fire, helpfully touching so many lives.   The stories and observations in Patrick Ussher’s Stoicism Today collections are inspirational.  They are a terrific testimony to the adaptability of ancient Stoic teaching to contemporary conditions and predicaments.

This event would have been unimaginable when I began to study ancient Stoicism more than fifty years ago. My interest in the Stoics at that time was entirely academic.  I had fallen in love with philosophy as a schoolboy. Within a few years, thanks to a sequence of happy accidents, I found myself teaching classics and ancient philosophy at the distant University of Otago in New Zealand.  One of my first assignments was a graduate class on Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; this work is our best surviving source for the ancient Stoics’ theory of emotion (a topic now brilliantly discussed by Margaret Graver, who spoke at last year’s Stoicon in Toronto, and of great interest to many of you).  As I wondered what to do as a long-term research project, I received the following advice from David Furley, a fine scholar and teacher of mine at UCL: “You should study Stoicism because it is (at the date of 1964) the most neglected of all the ancient schools of philosophy”.

How so?  Had people back then stopped reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. These authors were being read occasionally and unsystematically, but it was not neglect of them that Furley had urged me to repair.   The Roman Stoics’ philosophical doctrines derive entirely from theories first elaborated in the Athenian Stoa some 300 and more years before.  It was that – the teaching of those remarkable Greek-speaking immigrants to Athens, Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus – that Furley meant by describing Stoicism as the school most in need of recovery. The recondite and haphazard conditions of survival were one reason for scholars’ neglecting the founding fathers of Stoicism. But other and much deeper things were responsible, making your Stoicon inconceivable fifty years ago.

One factor was the widespread British and American belief around 1950 that early Stoicism was of no interest as academic philosophy.  That belief has proven to be hopelessly incorrect; in ethics and in logic the ancient Stoics were way ahead of the game.    Much more than scholarly prejudice, however, was and still is at stake.  Outside universities as well, Stoicism had become the Cinderella of ancient philosophy. The once famous works of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – the very books that have captured your attention – were completely out of fashion in the middle years of the twentieth century. Far from being taken seriously as a timelessly practical guide to life, Roman Stoicism was widely reputed to exhibit “monumental moralizing dullness” (Gerard Watson’s expression in 1966).  What we are now experiencing, in the current Stoic revival, is a really extraordinary paradigm shift.  The Roman Stoics and Greek Stoicism have become one of the hottest things both in philosophy and in popular culture.

How and why has this happened?  No one fifty years ago was talking about “philosophies of life” especially in the no-nonsense UK (recall he show “No sex please, we’re British”), or talking about Stoicism as therapy or mind training. Writers who paved the way for “Stoicism Today,” including Hadot and Foucault in France, Stockdale, Nussbaum, and Irvine in the US, Robertson in the UK and Canada, were not even a blip on the horizon.   All those years ago none of our Stoic focus as academics was practical.  We loved to analyze Stoic ethics, physics and logic, but simply as wonderful and intriguing intellectual constructions.  It was extremely exciting to be at the forefront of recovering ancient Stoic philosophy.  Working, as I also did at the time, on Epicureanism and Scepticism, I was sometimes asked which one of the three schools I fancied for myself.  Please don’t be shocked at my flippant reply: “I am a stoic lower case (!)in the morning when I write, a sceptic in the afternoon when I teach, and an epicurean in the evening when I have fun.”

Some forty years ago, at the end of the Soviet era, I met a Hungarian journalist who told me that {I quote} “Stoicism (meaning the ancient Stoa) is the philosophy for our time”.  Like Lipsius in the year 1600 or so, the journalist meant that inner freedom, equanimity, and self-mastery are especially meaningful and urgent when the external world has become fraught or turbulent or you have actually lost political freedom.  At the time I encountered the Hungarian, it was still reasonable for a Brit or an American to view our own social and political world with a fair degree of optimism, to think by and large that things were getting better; at least that was my mind-set.  Today (O tempora, O mores) I have come to share the Hungarian’s view that Stoicism is also the philosophy for my time.  So I can completely sympathize with those of you who have come to that same realization.  I have also as a teacher and author lived with Epictetus (even lecturing on him to prisoners in San Quentin Gaol), so now I constantly ask myself: What would Epictetus say to me at this moment?

There are, of course, many (lower case) stoicisms, and many ways of approaching ancient (upper case) Stoicism.  Lower case stoicism was not invented by Zeno, when he began teaching in the Athenian Stoa 2300 years ago.   Making the best of things, sticking to a goal through thick and thin, drawing on inner resources of mind and will, prizing excellence of character  – these had been Greek values long before.  Homer’s “much-enduring and resourceful” Odysseus was an honorary Stoic hero, while Socrates, whom Zeno was primarily inspired by (and who populates the pages of Epictetus), died a hundred years before the foundation of the Stoic school.   Or from our own times, take the lower case stoicism of Irving Berlin’s great song: “I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.  Got no money in the bank, got no mansion, got no yacht, still I’m happy with what I got”.

As for upper case or official ancient Stoicism, it had many voices, as you know from your focus on the Roman Stoic philosophers. We have Seneca’s polished rhetoric and caustic wit, Epictetus’s dialogical brilliance and wake-up calls, and the moving and stalwart meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  All three are quite individual in their style and appeal.  To these three voices we can go back in time for distinctive upper case Stoic voices. I think of Cicero’s eloquent treatment of practical ethics in his De officiis, one of the first books to be printed in 1465, with its theories drawn closely from a work by the Stoic Panaetius.   I think of Cleanthes’ great Hymn to Zeus. And I think of Chrysippus’s rousing paeon to the natural and immutable law of right reason.

Many ancient Stoic voices then, and many variations of tone and emphasis. They encourage us to express and enact Stoicism in our own way. They don’t presume that any of their readers could be close to becoming a sage, a perfectly Stoic person.  Ancient Stoicism was a philosophy of progress, leaving each individual to try to make the best of themselves according to their own personalities, aptitudes, and real life situations.

Yet, the ancient upper case Stoics, allowing for their individuality and circumstances, all sang the same basic tune.  Don’t be misled by the notion I sometimes read in modern writers that ancient Stoicism was thoroughly eclectic, letting you pick out choice bits and discard the rest. Greek and Roman Stoics were in complete agreement about three reciprocal doctrinal principles: (1) the rational and providential structure of the universe, (2) the special status, responsibilities and challenges of being human (endowed with reason), and (3) our innate potentiality and goal – to live well together in all circumstances. Those common principles were underwritten by three big ideas that I have chosen to focus on here in the following order: the beauty of virtue and its sufficiency for happiness; social utility; and cosmic connectedness.

Virtue as Beauty and Sufficiency for Happiness

We are all familiar with the ancient Stoics’ claim that virtues of character (prudence, courage, justice, and moderation) are central to a flourishing human life.  You can read in some modern accounts of ancient Stoicism that virtue is the “highest” good.  Actually, no! That proposition fits Plato and Aristotle, not Stoicism. Plato and Aristotle admitted lower level goods – goods of the body (health and fitness etc.) and goods of external circumstances (wealth and reputation etc.). The Stoics disagreed. So-called lower –level goods are naturally attractive and necessary for our sheer, physical existence, they said; but they are not absolutely essential to our moment-by-moment lives as rational and autonomous agents.

If we are to be authentically or upper case Stoics I think we must accept this stark distinction between goodness and other values, difficult though it is.  (Is it compatible with the philanthropy and communitarianism on which ancient Stoics laid such stress?  Keep that question in mind, but let’s interrogate the doctrine concerning the attribution of goodness to nothing but virtue.) The ancient Stoics were adamant that virtue is not the highest good; it is the only good.  Far from being a quibble, as this thesis may sound on first acquaintance, it was a point of huge contention between Stoics and their philosophical rivals.  It was also the point that most decisively marked the Stoics’ philosophical identity and made them special.

As Epictetus states so trenchantly in the first sentences of the Manual, bodily and external things are “not up to us”, meaning things we are totally in charge of and capable of bringing about.  There are no bodily and external goods in Stoicism; there are only mental and moral goods. Epictetus distinguishes between the things “up to us” (our mental and moral life) and the things “not up to us” (our bodies and external states of affairs).

This distinction may be our single most important legacy from ancient Stoicism. It makes us, our individual selves, not good luck or good fortune, primarily responsible for our happiness and unhappiness. It restricts human goodness to excellence of mind, motivation, intention, character, and will – the things that are up to us; and it also restricts badness, correspondingly, to things that are up to us: namely, deficiencies of mind, motivation, character and will.   Things not up to us – such as health, wealth, family, country – these are all areas in which Stoics are required to exert themselves by acting as effectively and beneficially as possible. [More on this crucial point, in due course.] But the success we should naturally aim at in these areas, and which we would naturally like to achieve for ourselves and for others, is not “up to us”.  Success depends on other things besides our individual minds and motivations and plans (such things as our physical health and strength, the people around us, impersonal circumstances, and accidents). Therefore successful achievement is not itself a good, a credit or benefit to us as individual agents.

The Greek Stoics expressed the restriction of goodness to virtue in the striking words monon to kalon agathon, literally: “Only what is beautiful is good”.  How are we to understand these words?  What has beauty to do with goodness, happiness, and the virtues of character? Were the Stoics saying that they could or should try to win beauty competitions?  If the competition were for ethical beauty, then absolutely yes!  According to the ancient Stoics goodness and beauty are logically equivalent.  This means that you cannot have one of them without the other.  Beauty and goodness are mutually implicated and connected.  Does that tight bond make beauty and goodness synonymous?  Not in the least. Each term retains its distinct meaning, according to the Stoics’ lexicon. Goodness signifies optimal function, benefit, acting supremely well. Beauty signifies perfect balance and symmetry, completeness, nothing out of place, sheen or resplendence.

Ethics and aesthetics are inextricable from one another in these thoughts.  Epictetus as usual stated the point most memorably: “As a human being, you are not flesh or hair, but prohairesis (will, choice, decision, or intention); if you get that beautiful, then you will be beautiful” (3.1.40).  His word kalos, as the context makes clear, should be translated by “beautiful”, not by a less striking word like honorable or fine.  Stoic virtue is beautiful because it is perfect (“has all the numbers”); and it is beneficial because it necessarily and always benefits the doer and the object of one’s doing.  Each individual virtue is in sync with all the others. You cannot, according to ancient Stoicism, have one virtue without having the rest as well, be courageous, for instance, and not also be fair minded, balanced, and prudent.   The Stoics’ justice, courage, temperance, and prudence beautify their actions, and in beautifying their actions the virtues benefit those whom they affect.  How exactly do they “beautify”?

The core idea connecting goodness and beauty is harmony.  Harmony  was to the fore when the early Stoics formulated their goal of life as “living in agreement” (homologoumenos), “not being conflicted”. The agreement, they said, was with nature (physis), and the terms of the agreement were twofold: first, to be in harmony with one’s identity as a rational being, and second, to be in harmony with external nature or the way things happen by the processes of physics and biology.

I have moved in my words from goodness and benefit to beauty and harmony, but remember that these terms all refer to the same thing, namely virtue and virtuous action.  Moreover the Stoic word for harmony, homologia, also means agreement in the political sense of a treaty or compact.  The Stoic cosmos was not a mechanistic system composed of lifeless elements but a vast organism animated and activated and structured by the rational force that they called Zeus or divinity.  In advocating harmony with external nature, the Stoics envisioned the divinely animated and activated world as their home in an extended sense or their community, and not only their home or community but also their guardian.

Living in harmony with nature was not just a metaphor for coping with the accidents of fortune; it was endorsing the natural course of life from birth to death as a compact or contract that we implicitly undertake with the world’s causal processes and the basic facts of life. The compact, as Seneca says, included mortality among its terms, or having a foot, as Epictetus says, that will sometimes get muddy.  The compact required that we submit willingly to the natural/inevitable course of events, accepting that there is always a role for us to play beautifully (kalos, Epictetus’s word again) in the world’s economy.

Zeno found evidence of divine providence in the world’s outstanding beauty (eximia pulchritudo), in Cicero’s translation of his words.  The statement does not mean that the cosmos is beautiful in every part and detail, but that the beauty and harmony the cosmos does exhibit overall is superb and evidence of a divine artist’s handiwork.  In their moral aesthetics – the identity of human beauty and goodness – the ancient Stoics took themselves to have an analogue and model in the beauty and beneficence of external nature.  There are numerous passages to this effect that you doubtless know in Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus.

The beauty of virtue has largely disappeared from our colloquial discourse, and it doesn’t seem to be emphasized by modern stoics.  It needs to be brought back not only to modern stoicism but also to ethics as such.  The beauty of prohairesis, as Epictetus envisioned it, takes human goodness to be glamorous, as it were, admirable and choiceworthy because it displays human identity at its best.  The virtues, according to Stoic doctrine, were not introverted or self-regarding qualities but visible to observation.  Nothing in the least is narcissistic about the virtues’ beauty. Their context and scope were intended to be socially beneficial through and through.

We will understand this social dimension if we remove from ancient Stoicism, as modern Stoics are successfully doing, the old connotations of lower case stoic apathy and repression.  Stoic philosophy from the outset, unlike its Epicurean rival, was socially and politically engaged.  It was designed for action in the world and, at the limit, for exemplifying something splendid.  That is why Socrates and Cato, in their very different ways were exemplary.   Seneca served for years as an imperial adviser, Epictetus trained young men who would enter public or military service, and Marcus Aurelius was emperor.  When Cicero at the end of his life inveighed against Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (vainly pleading for the continuance of the Roman Republic and against one-man rule) he turned to upper case Stoicism, writing it into De officiis, which he dedicated to his feckless son.

It is true, of course, that patient acceptance and emotional fortitude are prominent values in some of our ancient Stoic literature, and they are understandably popular in Stoicism Today. You can be splendid or beautiful as a Stoic in prison or hospital or on your deathbed or on refraining from anger. Given the human condition and “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” the consolatory and therapeutic application of Stoicism was and remains absolutely right, proper, and authentic.  The point I want to get across here is that action, not resignation, least of all self-absorption, was the original driver of the Stoic movement.  According to Stoic doctrine, the wise man will engage in public life if the opportunity arises.  In the order of preferential lives, being a monarch ranked first, second came statesman, and professor only third.

Times change, and I leave it to you to figure out how a modern Stoic would or should be an activist.  “Ought”, as philosophers say, implies “can”.  Epictetus advised his students to make such decisions on the basis of clear-headed self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses: “If you are Agamemon, then lead the host”, and I could imagine him going on, “If you are Thersites, then be a stand-up comic”.  We have to figure out the specific role that we can play best and beautifully, but no ancient Stoic would want to be a solitary or a hermit. The general point Epictetus makes, bringing us back to the beauty of virtuous action, is not to settle for being merely ordinary: “Whatever you encounter that is painful or pleasant or popular or unpopular, keep in mind that now is the contest, and here right now are the Olympic games, and that postponement is no longer an option, and that your progress is saved or ruined by a single day and a single action”.  These are fighting words, applicable to all imaginable experiences.

The flip side to the beauty and happiness making of virtue is the ugliness of acting contrary to the norms of human nature.  The Greek word opposite to kalos is aischros, which straddles observable ugliness and lack of shame or dishonour.  Epictetus uses it, in order to challenge his students to objectify unethical actions, to see how ugly they are.  Like the modern philosopher Bernard Williams (in his book, Shame and Necessity) Epictetus prefers shame to guilt as the more effective moral sanction.  Like Williams again, Epictetus socializes our inner life by insisting that we are never alone.  Williams populates the mind with what he calls “the internalized other” as witness to potentially shameful actions.  Epictetus declares that “you are never alone” because “god and your own divinity” (meaning the voice of reason) “are within” (1.13.14), so you cannot escape their observation.  We are familiar with the notion of letting oneself down, not coming up to scratch.  Ancient Stoicism was singularly effective, psychologically spot on, by expressing ideal self-respect in terms of looking beautiful to any witness, whether external or internal, your friends and acquaintances or just yourself.

Social Utility

Ancient Stoicism, I have been saying, was designed to be a philosophy of action.  We are born for community, Marcus regularly tells himself, and Epictetus said: “we are so constituted that we can attain none of our own goods unless we contribute something to the common interest” (1.19.15).  This sounds almost like Victorian utilitarianism, the philosophy that advocated the greatest happiness of the greatest number.   Yet if, as I was explaining, Stoic goodness is confined to the beauty of virtuous action and nothing else is good or strictly “up to us,” how do we in all consistency contribute to the common interest?  Is it rational for Stoics to care about other people’s welfare, taking welfare to include health care, decent standards of living, education and so forth, none of which, according to Stoic value theory are beautiful, good, and creditable in themselves?

We need to respond to this question with a rousing affirmative if ancient stoicism is fully applicable to contemporary life.  I can answer it here with just two quotes from the ancient sources.  Here first is Chrysippus: “The wise man will engage in public discourse and conduct policy as if wealth and social esteem and health were good things” (LS 66B).  Interpret this statement as follows. Stoic politicians do not aim at moral rearmament or converting the world to Stoicism. They aim at benefiting their constituents in ways that are conducive to people’s mental and physical welfare. Health and wealth are not morally good in the special Stoic sense, but they are naturally preferable to poverty and sickness. Therefore it is morally good to make welfare a principal objective of political action – to try to benefit people in all the ways that are naturally appropriate to flourishing human life and that conform to equitable distribution of resources.

My second quote from Antipater runs thus: “We should do everything in our power continuously and undeviatingly to obtain the predominating things that accord with nature” (LS 58K).  Those things, as in the previous quote, include health, wealth, and social esteem or dignity. The quote is sometimes interpreted as if the virtuous effort were simply for oneself – striving mightily for my own health and wealth and dignity; but this makes no sense of Stoic communitarianism and philanthropy or the utility of virtuous action.

Virtuous actions in ancient Stoicism constituted happiness for the agent, but they were not self-regarding or selfish in motivation: you do not act fairly and courageously as a Stoic in order to feel good.  The joy that the virtues generated was a byproduct, not their raison d’etre. The virtues derived their beauty and goodness from the agent’s character and intentions, which were entirely internal to the mind; but their aim and orientation were external –  (1) to maximize naturally and objectively preferable states of affairs, and (2) to equip the agent to be socially effective by freeing him or her from debilitating and harmful emotions.  Ancient Stoicism, therefore, in its understanding of social utility, fits the humanitarian activism of such organizations as Doctors without Borders, Unicef, and Human Rights Watch.

Cosmic Connectedness

This socially relevant utility brings me to the third big idea of ancient Stoicism that I propose to discuss, perhaps the biggest and most challenging idea – cosmic connectedness. This idea comes up all the time in the ancient texts, sometimes by the postulate that we human beings are parts of the whole or citizens of the world, sometimes by describing us as links in the chain of fate, or even as children of God.  I have left cosmic connectedness to the last because it often appears in theological contexts that seem to some interpreters to be unhelpful and unacceptable to modern Stoics. Can we moderns, agnostic as many of us are, relate sympathetically to a philosophy whose physics are founded on fate or universal determinism, divine and omnipresent causality, cosmic teleology, and providence?

Larry Becker, author of the book A New Stoicism, has argued that modern Stoics need to reject “the notion that the natural world is a purposive system with an end or goal that practical reason directs us to follow.”  Such a notion, he says, is out of touch with modern science.  I am always worried when people speak like that because modern science is full of holes and uncertainties.  My Berkeley biological friends tell me we are still hugely unclear about the origins of life and the connections between biochemistry and consciousness. Forget about science then, for the moment, but do ancient Stoics, in Becker’s words, specify an “end or goal of the natural world as such”?

Marcus Aurelius, may seem to do so when he writes: “Everything that is harmonious for thee, O Nature, is harmonious for me” (4.23) – amor fati, as it is sometimes called.  But Stoic philosophers do not typically assign a goal to nature as such, to global nature as if it were a super entity in itself.  The goals of nature, in typical Stoic understanding of the expression, are the optimal functioning of the living beings that populate the planet– the fertility and fruits of crops, the healthy behaviour of animals according to their species, and the deployment of human reason in ways appropriate to oneself and one’s company – ways that pay due attention to understanding oneself and one’s mental impressions. Our goal as human beings is not to identify nature’s goal (the world spirit, as Hegel would say, or the thoughts of God) but to live in agreement with our own human nature and our own external circumstances.  We are not meant to second guess the natural world’s goals, to play catch up, as it were with God’s business, but to “live according to experience of natural events” (Chrysippus’s expression) – which means applying ourselves to the world in the beautiful and useful ways that I have already outlined.

Because the Stoic world is a fully determinate structure –a closed system of causes and effects where nothing is simply random or by chance – every external situation that we face could not be otherwise than it is.  Stoic  fate amounts to saying: “This is what it was bound to be for me at this time and place – breaking my leg, getting offered this job”, etc. But fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do.  We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we take and by the responses we give to our circumstances. Our past, up to the last second, is settled, and therefore no grounds for rational regret or congratulation; but our future will depend crucially on how we decide to act – the one thing that is fully and uniquely up to us, and that Stoics take God/ Nature to have delegated to us as individual persons.

I am, as I say, a bit wary when people tell me that ancient Stoicism is scientifically hopeless.  It seems to me to be pretty good in regard to the science that we need for living in agreement with nature day by day.  Forget about God or providence, if you like; but consider the inter-dependence and connectedness of ecological systems, the problems we (not fate or God) are causing by global warming and environmental degradation; consider the prevalence of disasters from human error and from lack of planning or forethought (e.g. Hurricane Karina). We are biologically and vitally interconnected by breath, and light, and heat, and water and vegetation.

The planet would be much better off and we would be much better off if we acknowledged and cherished these natural blessings.  When Epictetus urges his students to give thanks to providence and acknowledge divine agency, he starts by remarking on the interconnectedness of earth and sky, seasonal change, the sun’s rising and setting, and living bodies’ dependence on these things.  As a modern Stoic you don’t need to credit Nature with divinity and providence, but if you are inclined to do so, take a walk in the country and read Wordsworth’s great poem The Excursion, for instance:

One adequate support
for the calamities of mortal life
exists – one only; an assured belief
that the procession of our fate, howe’er sad or disturbed, is ordered
by a Being
of infinite benevolence and power; whose everlasting purposes  embrace
all accidents, converting them to good.

Or read Mark Garvey’s lovely essay in Stoicism Today, vol. 1, p. 60:

If you are one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice, is some level of appreciation for finding  yourself in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder     and joy.

So let’s talk about Stoic virtue as beauty, Stoic utility as social welfare, and Stoic cosmic connectedness as living wisely according to experience of natural events.

Tony (A.A.) Long  is Professor of the Graduate School, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics, and Irving G. Stone Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of California – Berkeley.  His writings on Hellenistic philosophy have made significant contributions to the field for over half a century.  His latest books are How to be Free; An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (2018), Greek Models of Mind and Self  (2015), and the translation (with Margaret Graver) of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics To Lucilius (2015)