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)