How to Develop Virtue in a Stoic Way by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

Tim: Hi Chris, I’d really value the opportunity to pick your brains about the Stoic line on virtue, and particularly on the question how to develop virtue if I want to do so in a Stoic way.

Before we do that it is important to set the scene by saying a bit about two other approaches. I’ll start with what I will call the Positive Psychology view of virtue.  Positive Psychology is a branch of contemporary psychology begun in 1998 by Martin Seligman and it devotes a lot of attention to virtues and their development. Seligman, Peterson, and colleagues undertook multi-disciplinary research on character strengths, resulting in the VIA Character Strengths Classification.

The VIA identifies 6 virtues and 24 character strengths. Each virtue is said to comprise of a number of more specific strengths, for example the virtue of wisdom consists of the strengths of curiosity, perspective, love of learning and creativity and judgement.  In order to flourish, people are encouraged to identify their top strengths and use them in new ways. For example, someone with a love of learning might watch a Ted Talk every day and approach every problem by thinking ‘how can my love of learning help me here?’. 

Positive Psychology also encourages people to develop the virtues in general (as well as their top strengths) and psychologists have researched how to do this. A notable example is Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, a book which gives a psychological framework for understanding self-control and provides some evidence-based ways to develop it. Whilst some psychologists, such as Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe, argue for the interdependence of the virtues and the importance of wisdom, it would be fair to say that this is not a majority view in positive psychology.

A second well-known view of the virtues is that of Aristotle and his followers.  Unlike most contemporary psychologists, Aristotle argued for the unity of the virtues, meaning that if you truly have one virtue you have them all. Aristotle divided virtues into the ethical virtues, that is, virtues of ‘character’ (ēthos), including the well-known virtues of courage, temperance and justice and other virtues such as magnanimity (having the right attitude about honour), and intellectual virtues, broadly divided into theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronēsis).

Aristotle famously argued for a theory of the mean regarding the ethical virtues, the mean being determined by phronēsis. For example, the courageous act is not necessarily half-way between the rash and the cowardly act; it is what the person of practical wisdom sees as the appropriate act in the specific situation. According to Aristotle, virtue is developed by habituation. You become courageous, for example, by performing courageous acts. He did not however, specify in much detail exactly how you could develop the virtues, devoting more attention to their classification.

In short Positive Psychologists see the virtues as separate and independent and focus on developing them through evidenced-based methods and do not place more importance on wisdom than the other virtues.  Aristotle saw the virtues as closely interconnected, being united by practical wisdom (phronēsis), which is thus for Aristotle a very important quality to develop.  To my mind, at least, Aristotle provides frustratingly little detail about how to develop phronēsis and the other virtues. Where would the Stoics stand here compared to positive psychologists and Aristotle?

Chris: The Stoics are much closer to Aristotle than Positive Psychology in their overall theory of virtue. They stress the unity or interdependence of the virtues more than Aristotle does. Some Stoics see all the virtues as subdivisions of wisdom, others see the virtues as interdependent (you cannot have one without having the others), so wisdom is necessary on either view. But the Stoics do not subdivide virtues into ethical ones (virtues of character) and virtues of intellect. The virtues involve the personality as a whole, including both rational and emotional dimensions. All the virtues are seen as forms of knowledge or expertise (skill in living life well), but they also shape our emotions and desires.

The Stoics also stress much more than Aristotle the idea that virtues fall into four main groups, that is, the four cardinal virtues (wisdom – both practical and theoretical – courage, justice and temperance or moderation). These virtues map the four main areas of human experience: gaining knowledge and reasoning well, facing dangers and difficulties, relating to other people, and dealing with emotions and desires. These four cardinal virtues have many subdivisions; these subdivisions are rather like the ‘strengths’ of the Positive Psychologists, except that they are also virtues and not different in kind from them. Here’s a rough outline of the Stoic theory of virtue – see what you think about that and then we can go on to discuss Stoic views on how we develop these virtues.

Tim:  I think I’m clear about the difference between the Stoic and contemporary Positive Psychology positions, less so on that between Aristotle and the Stoics. An example may help here. Suppose I am in a meeting and have a view that may be unpopular but is also important to consider. It would be cowardly to say nothing but perhaps rash to rudely and bluntly tell everyone they are wrong. I would need practical wisdom to determine the timing and  wording  of my intervention. So the courageous person doesn’t just overcome fear, he or she does so in a wise (and morally good) way.  How if at all would the Stoic view differ?

Chris: The differences between the Aristotelian and Stoic views of virtue are not substantial in a case like this (though there are differences). For both approaches, acting virtuously involves wisdom in some sense: for the Stoics wisdom is seen as built into all the virtues, whereas for Aristotle practical wisdom is a separate skill (though it is needed for the exercise of character virtue). So for both thinkers virtue involves a kind of expertise that we need to learn. Aristotle sees a virtuous act as ‘hitting the mean’ between two extremes (in your example, between cowardice and rashness) whereas the Stoics do not think in these terms. For them, virtue is just ‘getting it right’, and vice ‘getting it wrong’.

The main difference is that the Aristotelian courageous person – in this case or more extreme ones – has to overcome a fear she feels. The Stoic virtuous person does not have the ‘passion’ (bad emotion) of fear, because she does not regard danger or death as, in themselves, ‘bad’ things. This is the whole point of the distinction the Stoics draw between virtue and indifferents, which is also linked with their understanding of emotions. But as you will recall from our dialogue about indifferents, the Stoics do draw a distinction between ‘preferable’ and ‘dispreferable’ indifferents. So they too would regard a dangerous situation as one which we find naturally ‘dispreferable’ – they do not risk their lives thoughtlessly. But in a situation where the wise person is sure she needs to take the risk, she will do so without fear.

Coming back to your example, the Stoic and Aristotelian virtuous person would act in the same way, but would think about the situation rather differently. And if the Stoic person felt it was right to tell people they are wrong, she would not need to overcome fear to do so.

Tim: So in the example of courage we are discussing, the Aristotelian ‘feels the fear and does it anyway’ whereas the Stoic does not feel fear. I wonder if this difference applies to temperance, justice and wisdom as well? With temperance, Aristotle is in line with the Stoics in saying that the truly virtuous person will not have to overcome temptation. However Aristotle has another category, the self-controlled person, who is not fully virtuous but is better than the vicious person. To take the case of someone who has decided on moral grounds to become a vegetarian. An Aristotelian fully virtuous temperate person would not even feel tempted to eat meat, whereas the self-controlled person might well feel urges to have a tasty burger but would overcome these urges.  What would the Stoics say about these two cases?

Chris: The Stoics would agree with Aristotle about temperance: the Stoic temperate person (like the Aristotelian) simply does not want to eat meat if she is convinced this is wrong. But there are some related differences. The Stoics see all the virtues as similar to temperance in this respect, even courage. The Stoic virtuous person does not experience any of the feelings (‘passions’, such as fear) that run counter to her principles. Also, according to the Stoics, Aristotle’s self-controlled person is not virtuous at a lower level, as she is for Aristotle, but lacking in virtue. However, she may be regarded as wanting to make ‘progress’ towards virtue (having virtue as her aim); this idea of progress is a very important one for the Stoics and for virtually all of us, ethical life operates at this level.

Tim:  OK, how about justice?  You said earlier that for the Stoic this is about relating well to other people? Would there be differences in the Aristotelian and Stoic view on justice?

Chris: I think for both theories, justice (as a virtue of people) centres on giving people their due, and that, for both theories, the just person is someone who wants to do that (not someone who makes himself act justly against his inclinations). However, justice, in Stoicism is one of the four generic or cardinal virtues and it includes (as a subdivision) the virtue of generosity that Aristotle sees as an independent virtue, as well as other qualities concerning human relationships.

Tim: Finally let’s come back to wisdom. We’ve already talked about how the Stoics see wisdom as shaping our emotions and desires rather than just being an intellectual quality. Is this the main difference between the Stoics and Aristotle regarding wisdom?

Chris: It’s a bit more complicated than that. Different Stoics have slightly different views on wisdom: some thinkers see all virtues as subdivisions of wisdom (so on this view, ‘wisdom’ is equivalent to ‘virtue’); others regard all four cardinal virtues as interdependent, but still see wisdom as the leading virtue. However, for virtually all Stoic thinkers, wisdom is both practical and theoretical (not divided into two as in Aristotle). So the wise person, the Stoic ideal figure, does everything well, whether it’s going to a party, ruling a state, or working out a logical argument. Wisdom consists in knowing how to live well, in every possible human situation. If you are wise you will also have the other virtues, including courage and temperance, and so you will have feelings and desires in line with correct principles. So wisdom is a unitary kind of virtue – not subdivided between ‘character’ virtue and ‘intellectual’, or between ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’, as in Aristotle. Of course, again, wisdom is an ideal; we are all working towards wisdom, aiming to make progress towards reaching it.

Tim: Thank you Chris. So the Stoic sees virtue as combining ideal thinking, feeling and behaviour. Seneca said that a fully virtuous person (the Stoic sage) ‘springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.’ (Letter 42.1). So it’s reassuring to hear you say that the Stoics place value on making progress towards virtue. Assuming that someone reading this article is fully on board with Stoic ideas but recognises they are not yet fully virtuous, how do they go about making progress towards virtue?

Chris: Well, as with the earlier question about virtue, it’s useful to put the Stoic view in a larger context, by contrast with Aristotle, or a modern thinker like Alasdair MacIntyre who adopts an Aristotelian approach. Aristotle and MacIntyre would say you develop the virtues by living in a good society and that you build up the virtues, in the first instance at least, by absorbing the values built into the life and discourse of your family and community. If you are not fortunate enough to live in a good society there is a real question whether you can in fact develop the virtues.

The Stoics also think that we are influenced by our social context, in good and bad ways. But, unlike Aristotle (and MacIntyre) they believe that ‘all human beings have the starting-points of virtue’, as they put it. The capacity to develop the virtues is built into our make-up, regardless of the social context we live in (though this is obviously going to be more difficult in some societies than others). We have an in-built capacity to form ideas such as good or just. And we have the ability to interpret our social context selectively, so that we can identify what is and not virtuous. So this is a start in answering your question.

Tim: That all sounds very promising. But in that case, why isn’t everyone fully virtuous, according to the Stoics, and why is the wise person such a rare phenomenon?

Chris: To understand their view, we have to take account of two important features of their thinking: their ideas about development as ‘appropriation’ and about the sources of corruption. According to their theory of development, human beings are instinctively inclined to want things that enable them to lead a full human life, things such as health, property, social stability and status. However, if they develop ethically (again, seen by Stoics as a natural process), they come to realize that their happiness in life depends not just on acquiring such things but on doing so in an excellent or expert way.

In other words, they realize that happiness consists not just in gaining these things but doing so virtuously, exercising the four cardinal virtues and their subdivisions. They also recognise that things such as health and property are ‘preferable indifferents’; they are things we naturally want to have but they do not make the difference between happiness and unhappiness, whereas the virtues do (this is what we have discussed in the dialogues on ‘indifferents’).

Well, if this is the ‘natural’ way for human beings to develop, why don’t we all achieve virtue or wisdom and happiness automatically? The Stoics identify two major sources of corruption, which stop this process happening in most cases.

The most important one is that we are not just instinctively attracted to things such as health and property, but inclined (naturally, again) to want them too much and in the wrong way. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are good in themselves and form the basis of happiness or the good life, and failing to make the further move of recognising that they are indifferent or neutral in this respect and that real happiness depends on gaining these things virtuously (and in no other way).

The second source of corruption is that we tend to be influenced by those around us, including parents, teachers, and friends, who have already formed mistaken views about these things. Taken together, these factors counteract what the Stoics see as the natural way for human beings to develop and block our forming the virtues.

Tim: Well, this seems pretty bad news for people wanting to make progress towards Stoic virtue. Is there anything we can do about this situation and do the Stoic thinkers offer any guidance to help us become better people?

Chris: Emphatically – ‘yes’ to both questions. The Stoics believe that the capacity to make progress is in-built in all human beings, and throughout their lives. Nobody is seen as irredeemably corrupt or as incapable of improvement. And much of the surviving Stoic writing on ethics is directed at offering guidance to enable progress. This is another point of contrast with Aristotle.

You commented earlier that Aristotle has, frustratingly, little specific guidance on developing the virtues. This is partly because he thinks that, to develop virtue, you need to have been brought up in the right kind of social context and so you will already have a pre-theoretical grasp of what counts as virtuous, and philosophy just enables you to analyse what you have already grasped. The Stoics think that we all have the ability to learn how to live virtuously (and so happily) and that virtually all of us need to go on learning – making progress in understanding virtue – throughout our lives. Stoic writings on ethics, especially the more practically oriented writings, are designed to help us to make this progress.

Tim: What writings do you have in mind, then, and how do they promote self-improvement?

Chris: Cicero’s On Duties is a good example, written in three sections (we call them ‘books’). In Book 1 Cicero discusses the four cardinal virtues in general terms – as Aristotle does in his writings on ethics. But he also provides much more specific guidance than Aristotle on the kind of actions which express the different virtues, drawing on Stoic writings, historical examples and his own experience. This is a typical Stoic method, described by Seneca as a combination of doctrines and guidance (Letters 94 and 95). We find this combination of doctrines and specific guidance, in different forms, in practical ethical writings by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, for instance.

Tim: OK – I can see that providing detailed guidance is more helpful than just giving generalised accounts of the virtues. But I don’t quite see how this guidance is linked with specifically Stoic ideas about ethical development.

Chris: As we discussed earlier, Stoics think we are naturally disposed to go for things such as health and property (which enable us to live full human lives); but we are also naturally inclined to value them too much and in the wrong way. This prevents us from developing the virtues – that is, learning how to acquire health, property, and social position in the right way (that is, in line with wisdom, courage, justice and temperance), and thus to live the best possible human (and happy) life. So Stoic ethical writings, in different ways, aim to counteract this mistake, and try to enable us to give things such as health and property their proper value (as preferred indifferents) and not regard them as good in themselves (which the virtues are).

Cicero’s On Duties Book 1 offers a kind of sketch of what it means to lead a full human life in the right way (in line with the four cardinal virtues). And Book 2 provides a picture of how to acquire ‘preferred indifferents’ (the main focus is on social status) in a way that is consistent with practising the virtues. In Book 3, Cicero deals with the problem of how to deal with situations where these two types of value (acting virtuously and acquiring things such as property and social status) come into conflict, and we have to choose between them. He explores a series of practical situations of this kind; the overall message is that, in all such cases, we should always act according to the virtues (as we understand these), even if this means that we have to give up things (such as money or social status) that we might otherwise be inclined to go for. If we are properly motivated, Cicero stresses, there is no real choice between these two things – but, given the weakness of human nature, and the fact that we are still ‘making progress’, there can seem to be scope for a moral dilemma. So On Duties as a whole is a kind of guidebook for Stoic practical ethics.

Tim: That’s really interesting – I must take a closer look at On Duties. But I know Epictetus much better than Cicero, who wasn’t actually a Stoic, I gather, though he sometimes presents Stoic ideas – how does Epictetus contribute to this project?

Chris: Actually, Epictetus is rather unusual among Stoic ethical thinkers in that he does not have much to say about virtue, happiness or ‘indifferents’ – at least not explicitly. However, he may be aiming to support the same Stoic framework of ideas from a new angle. For instance, one of his most common themes is the importance of drawing a sharp distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’, and of focusing our attention on what is up to us.

This may be intended as a new way of presenting the standard Stoic idea that we are all capable of ethical development (of making progress) and that this is what matters most in life, whereas happiness does not depend on gaining things such as property and health (which he sometimes calls ‘externals’). However, in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, thinkers who also lived, like Epictetus, in the first and second centuries AD, we find many references to the same framework of ideas we find in Cicero’s On Duties and the same view of what is involved in ethical development.

Tim: And where would the approach taken in Stoic Week and SMRT fit into this? In Stoic Week, participants are invited to do ‘Stoic Meditations’ such as the morning pre-meditation of adversity, the View from Above, the Circles of Hierocles and the evening Stoic review of the day. Many of these are supported by audio recordings.  Are these to be viewed as ‘reminders’ of virtue? Or are they more than this?

For example, one might think that the evening review of the day helps partly because it embeds the theoretical knowledge of what is good (for example, helping one’s friends) with a practical situation (for example how to handle a meeting with a friend tomorrow). In short, I am wondering whether there is a third route to developing Stoic virtue, as well as reading about theory and detailed guidance, namely daily reflection of the kind suggested in Stoic Week?

Chris: The practices we suggest in Stoic Week and SMRT are, certainly, based on methods suggested by Stoic thinkers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. However, I don’t think that the Stoics would see them as reminders of virtue or ways of applying knowledge you already have to a specific situation. Remember that the Stoics don’t think we actually have virtue – we are working towards this, trying to make progress in this direction. So the daily reflection and meditations used in Stoic Week are meant to be ways of helping us get to a better understanding of what the virtues involve for us in specific real-life situations and relationships. Stoic guidance is not designed to give us precise rules and instructions about what to do or think but to encourage us to develop our in-built capacity to become a better person and manage our own lives.  

Tim: Finally, I’d like to come back to Positive Psychology and its potential value and limitations from a Stoic perspective. We said earlier that like Aristotle, the Stoics place a much higher value on wisdom than the other virtues, indeed some Stoics see all virtues as being a subdivision of wisdom. Where then does that leave the empirically-based tips suggested by Mischel about willpower and self-control (and other contemporary psychologists about how to develop the other virtues)

Three key ideas coming from contemporary psychological research about self-control are: (1) to ‘nudge’ the environment in the direction that is best for you (rather as Ulysses did to deal with the Sirens); (2) to distract ourselves from the temptation (as many of the self-controlled children did in Mischel’s famous ‘Marshmallow Test’); and (3) to remind ourselves of our long-term goals, preferably in a vivid manner so that our ‘hot’ emotional part of the brain comes on line.  

For example, suppose my cholesterol level is somewhat high and I make a New Year’s Resolution to stop eating doughnuts, which I am very partial to. If I was to consult Mischel, I might combine changing my route to work so I do not pass the cake shop (tweaking the environment) with reminding myself of my long-term goals in a vivid way, perhaps by imagining my doctor giving me a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes and then me having to tell this to my family. What would the Stoics say about such advice?  Would it be seen as making progress towards virtue? Or does it miss the point, because even if my actions would look more like that of the virtuous person – not eating doughnuts –  I have not fully integrated wisdom into my desires and emotions and so am just as bad as someone, like say Homer Simpson, makes no effort?

Chris: I think your last suggestion pinpoints the worry that a Stoic might have about these methods. They seem, in general, designed to try to change behaviour without changing beliefs, attitudes, emotions or desires – at least, if they aim to change these it is in a very indirect way. I think the Stoics believe that you can bring about change in a more up-front and direct way by thinking about what we really believe and value and by working on putting this into practice. This doesn’t mean the methods are purely rational and avoid any emotional dimension. Stoics might recommend forming a vivid picture of what it means to lead a healthy and active life (in your example) and forming an equally vivid picture of the consequences for health, physical appearance, activity and relationships of not doing so.

Seneca has a lot of advice about forming these kinds of negative pictures of the passion of anger in On Anger, and some of the pictures he paints are pretty lurid. The Stoic approach to training oneself is much more explicit and conscious than the one you describe – but I think it can be highly effective. If you really want to be vegetarian (one of your earlier examples), a Stoic would remind herself of the reasons for doing this (for the environment, for instance) – and lots of people are actually doing this now and changing their behaviour accordingly.

Tim: I’m really interested in what you say here. People might well get the impression otherwise that the Stoics recommend an overly intellectual and rationalistic approach. A caricature of the Stoic approach might be: ‘All you need to do is read the Stoics and you will be virtuous’. Now our evidence from Stoic week does not support this view. People who say that they know a lot about Stoicism are not particularly happy or flourishing (as measured by our scales). However, people who actually are progressing well towards being Stoic (as measured by SABS) are happier. So the question becomes – how do you move from knowing a lot about Stoicism to be able to put Stoic ideas into practice with some consistency? 

From our discussion it sounds as though there might be three key elements. First, we should think in some depth about the virtues and what they involve for the way we live our lives, and reading and reflecting on Cicero’s On Duties can help here.

Secondly, we can use the kind of exercises suggested in Stoic Week to help us to get a better understanding of what the virtues mean in specific real-life situations. For instance, we can use the morning meditation to imagine adversities and think how we can overcome them virtuously, and we can use the evening meditation to review our day and reflect on what we did well (i.e. virtuously) and what we can do better.

Would I be right in saying that a third method is to fully engage emotionally with what being virtuous means and also to have a strongly negative attitude to vice or passion? Seneca’s asking us to be aware of what we look like when angry would be an example of this – and so, I think would be my example from Mischel and Positive Psychology of imagining me having to tell my family that my doughnut-eating had led to a serious health problem?

Chris: Yes, I think that is right. The first two are clearly part of Stoic ideas about becoming a better person. And I think would agree with the third point too (this is one aspect of the Positive Psychology approach that is close to Stoic ideas). The Stoics stress very much the role of motivation in ethics and of engaging fully with the ideal of virtue and working whole-heartedly towards it. Stoic ethical writings are full of pictures of the ideal wise person or of near-wise exemplars; and there are also powerful negative images too, especially in the writings on passions. If we are to become virtuous we have to want this more than anything else; of course, wanting is not enough, but without this there is no real chance of making progress. What Stoicism commends is not a cold rationalistic attitude but a unified and coherent one, in which well-judged beliefs and understanding bring with them a consistent and unwavering emotional strength and integrity. And developing the virtues is a matter of making progress towards this goal.

Tim: I wonder if this discussion allows you to comment on the list that we produced from the recent Stoic Week report on what people intended to do to maintain their Stoic practice after Stoic week.  These are some of participants’ recommendations

  • Daily Stoic Meditation (specifically the morning and evening Meditations)
  • Read the main original Stoic texts
  • Do Stoic Week again on my own initiative
  • Speak to partner and friends about Stoicism
  • Watch You tube videos or podcasts about Stoicism regularly
  • Daily reflection and/or journaling of my progress in Stoicism
  • Focus on specific aspects of Stoicism such as the virtues and the dichotomy of control
  • Use the self-monitoring sheet from Stoic Week
  • Download the audios from Stoic Week and listen to them
  • Read modern books on Stoicism
  • Practice the ‘sage on my shoulder’ technique regularly
  • Do the View from Above meditation and reflect on our place in the universe
  • Set reminders (e.g. on phone) to do my Stoic Practice and of key Stoic teachings (daily or weekly)
  • Set aside time for regular practice, prioritise it

Are all of these good ideas? Should people give priority to some of them more than others in order to become virtuous in a Stoic way?

Chris: Well, actually, these all seem like pretty good ideas to me. It’s really a matter of whether people feel they want to get a better grip on Stoic ideas and theories or whether they feel the need of more practical means of putting this into practice. I would think a combination of building up a set of regular Stoic practices and reading original Stoic writings or modern books on them would be a good pattern for most people.

Tim: I feel we have covered a lot of ground. Not only the initial question, which a lot of people ask once they know a bit about Stoicism and the central role of virtue, about how to be more develop virtue, but also the similarities and differences between the Aristotelian and some contemporary psychological views. Thank you very much, I hope it is as useful to readers as I am sure it will be to me.

Chris: I feel I have learnt a lot too from trying to answer your questions – some quite challenging ones – and hope readers find our exchange useful in trying to put Stoic ideas into practice.

Some relevant reading:

Ancient writings:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (many translations), especially book 2, chapter 1, book 10, chapter 9.

Cicero, On Duties, translations by M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins (Cambridge University Press), and P. G. Walsh, (On Obligations – the same work, Oxford World’s Classics).

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press), sections 57-61, 66.

Modern scholarship:

J. Sellars, Stoicism (University of California Press), ch. 5.

J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford University Press), ch. 2.

Greg Sadler has recorded a series of You Tube videos on Cicero that serve as a good introduction, for example at Stoic Week 2015 – Day 3: Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis)

A. MacIntyre,  After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press)

W. Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control  (Corgi)

T. LeBon, Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder)

C. Peterson &  M. E. P. Seligman (2004). Character strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

B. Schwartz and K. Sharpe, ‘Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets Positive Psychology’, Journal of Happiness Studies (2006) 7:377–395

C. Gill & T. LeBon,‘Stoic Values Clarification’ (part 2) (2018)

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 1)

One set of topics that arises regularly – both in online forums for Stoicism and in face to face settings – can be brought under a broad heading: whether Stoicism is something equally useful for men and women. Concerns get raised – understandably so – whether (at least some) classic and contemporary interpretations of Stoicism don’t assume or reinforce traditional gender roles, relationships, and inequities. It struck me that inviting guest authors to another online symposium, like the one we had earlier on the topic What Is Modern Stoicism?, might be a good way to promote a well-informed, experientially-based, civil and productive conversation within the modern Stoic community.

Last year, I wrote to a number of women authors within the modern Stoic community, inviting them to take part in a second online symposium specifically on Women and Stoicism, proposing that general question “Is Stoicism something equally useful for men and women?” We start our series here with three contributions by Antra Pavlico, Natasha Brown, and Britany Polat, and we are looking forward to publishing additional sets of contributions to this symposium in the coming months!

In my call for contributions, I suggested a set of more specific questions that the authors might consider addressing, which included:

  • Does Stoicism seem to appeal to men more than to women in the present?  If so, why?
  • Are there challenges women face that Stoicism would be particularly apt or helpful with?
  • Does modern Stoicism have a “women problem”, in any sense one would like to give that term?
  • What should we make of the emphasis upon traditional gender roles of some of the Stoic authors (e.g. Epictetus or Seneca)?
  • Can one be equally a feminist and a Stoic?  Are there important tensions that have to be addressed?
  • what should we make of the use of Stoic authors and texts to promote misogynist “red-pill” movements and attitudes (sometimes called “broicism”)?

With no further ado, here are the first three contributions to this new online symposium. Comments are welcome, and a great way of adding to the conversation, but do make sure to give the Comments Policy a read.

Anitra Pavlico

Is Stoicism equally useful for men and women? Can one be both a feminist and a Stoic? Certainly – but this raises questions on what one considers a feminist and what one considers a Stoic.

“Feminist” is the term I had a harder time defining. I have always instinctively considered myself to be one, but I was unsure how the term had evolved. When I came across terminology such as third-wave and fourth-wave feminism I had to confront the fact that maybe I didn’t even know what a feminist was.

There appears to be no “one” feminism, but a myriad of usually complementary but sometimes conflicting sets of beliefs, typically animated by the overarching ethos of equal opportunity for women. A feminist, to me, is someone who supports equal rights – economic, social, political – regardless of gender. My notion of feminism does not disregard natural differences between the sexes, but advocates for the rights of all individuals to explore their full potential.

I have seen a similar variety of beliefs within modern Stoicism, with sometimes heated disagreements belying the emotionless-stoic stereotype. Modern Stoics generally agree that Stoicism is a useful construct, based on the writings of certain ancient thinkers, prescribing ways to live a fulfilling life. It prizes virtue, rationality, temperance of desires, recognition of the humanity of others, and mental toughness.

One potential conflict between Stoicism and feminism may derive from misogynists latching onto Stoicism’s “live in accordance with nature” edict as a rationale for relegating women to lesser social and economic strata because they alone are able to bear children. To me, humans living in accordance with nature instead means taking advantage of what by nature separates us from other animals: the ability to reason. We can rationally see that humanity as a whole suffers when we limit women to a childbearing role, shut them off from economic opportunities, or otherwise forbid them to take part in the full range of human activities.

It is impossible to anticipate the range of other ill-founded viewpoints on why women cannot practice Stoicism successfully, or why Stoicism and feminism are allegedly mutually exclusive. To analyze them too closely gives them much more attention and credence than they merit. Stereotypes of women as irrational or overly emotional, or less intelligent, are just stereotypes, fueled by misogyny. If you follow the news at all, you can hardly say that women have a monopoly on stupid, irrational behavior.

A sanguine, humanist view comes from Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, who points out that women as well as men have received the gift of reason from the gods; they have the same senses of sight, hearing, and smell as men; they likewise have a natural inclination toward virtue, just as men do: So why would philosophy be an appropriate tool for men who wish to lead a good life, but inappropriate for women? (See Musonius’s Lecture III.) Feminism and Stoicism both enable one to live one’s best life, be mentally tough, and get along in a world containing many misguided people who seem bent on sabotaging our peace of mind.

Peter Beinart pointed out recently in The Atlantic that greater political power for women is more common in countries where the genders share more equally in household chores. He writes that “the new authoritarianism [of leaders such as Trump and the Philippines’ Duterte] underscores the importance of an old feminist mantra: The personal is political. Foster women’s equality in the home, and you may save democracy itself.” Before women can even reach the point of advocating for justice in their homes, however, much less their countries, we need to master the fear and tension inside our own souls. Stoicism is extremely helpful for that, and for handling the anger that naturally comes from seeing injustice in the world.

Feminist activist Rebecca Walker wrote in Ms. magazine after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court:

So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power.

This was 27 years ago. She was right when she wrote the fight was far from over, as history continues to repeat itself.

It is not fruitful for women to say “I can’t be a Stoic, because I’m a feminist.” The issues we face in life are exceedingly complex, and we would all benefit from an emotional and intellectual toolbox that contains more than one tool.

Natasha Brown

Challenging the narrow paradigms that limit self-worth is a part of many women’s lived experiences.  Evidence shows barriers to women entering fields such as; science, mathematics, engineering and technology – at least in part due to gender bias.  As a black woman, I have both experienced and heard others describe how they have encountered limitations.

This has often manifested as stereotypes such as black women being angry, aggressive, unintelligent and hyper-sexual.  There is a long-standing notion amongst those descending from the diaspora communities of the Caribbean and Africa that we have to work twice as hard to be seen and heard, and also importantly, to achieve. Regardless of the truth and validity in these statements, they reflect the archetypes in which people exist.  

So, how can an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy be relevant for women and in particular women of colour?  Stoicism can help us to gain the confidence of our convictions by not letting our self-worth and confidence to aspire depend on other people’s opinions.  The latter perspectives would come under the Stoic notion of externals which are not under our control. Externals are outside of our direct influence, and as a consequence we do not have dominion over the way other people treat us.  It does not mean we should be apathetic to mistreatment; however we can choose how to challenge the situation without it defining our mood, self-worth and being. There are of course preferred externals which the Stoics identify, such as having good relationships and fulfilling work.  

Stoicism contributes towards the development of a good moral character, which ultimately can transcend limitations imposed by others.  It does this by concentrating our efforts towards the four virtues of practical wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Many have encountered terrible experiences such as Viktor Frankl – Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz – and held tightly to the fibre of his moral character by a focus on creating meaning and purpose in life.  That is not to say that there aren’t structural inequalities that need to be confronted; however by approaching our own experiences in a way that maintains our integrity, surely we can better contribute towards alleviating oppression overall. In developing our moral character we all boost our esteem which will enable us to better move forward towards our aspirations.

Instead of taking to heart the stereotypes and limiting beliefs in our skills, value and worth Stoicism can assist us to define our own story.  In doing so we can use obstacles to bolster our path whilst also acknowledging areas in which we can develop. Therefore, this philosophy can provide vital empowerment and motivation for women, who all too often face a glass-ceiling.  This can be done by a focus on what is in our control such as our opinions, desires and aversions. We cannot guarantee getting that deserved promotion in a tech company or not being judged as aggressive when we are communicating an opinion, but we can focus on being the best version of ourselves and doing our best with whatever is within our control.  Seneca describes the following in letter 23.2;

Reaching the heights means knowing what to rejoice in – finding prosperity in that which no one else can control.

Without care, the pursuits of women trying to break down barriers and overcome negative assumptions could be blown hither and tither by the whims of those who have more power.  Ambitions set aside because they don’t seem achievable and the judgements of others accepted unchallenged because it is thought that an alternative would be disbelieved. There is scope for reflecting on our capabilities in a rational way.

Cicero describes this in On Duties in terms of the four personae, which include:

  • common human rationality (ability to use reason)
  • the strengths assigned to individuals (your talents)
  • your character by chance (based on the times in which we live and what is accessible and realistic)
  • and your character assumed by your will (our own free choices).  

It is worth taking a look at these personae and contemplating the rationality of our choices. Stoics would certainly not advocate defining our worth based solely on the opinions of others. Epictetus who himself had been a slave, considered volition as the part of us that can be truly free. He describes in Discourses 2.2.25;

If you gape after externals, you will inevitably be forced up and down according to the will of your master.  And who is your master? Whoever has power over the things you are trying to gain or avoid.  

If others judge us harshly or make negative assumptions about us then we may wish to consider what can be learnt from the situation but we don’t have to take on the burden of their perspective.  Consider also the words of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations 8.49;

Say nothing more to yourself than what first appearances report.  Suppose it is reported that a certain person is saying terrible things about you.  This much is reported; but it is not reported that you have been hurt.

A Stoic may suggest shifting the focus to our character and acting in the best way possible using reason.  This could include being a role model for other black women who have experienced hardships by courageously continuing to show up – in whatever challenging encounter comes our way – this doesn’t mean acting as a doormat though.  We don’t have to let understandable upset due to mistreatment manifest as bitterness which will ultimately have more of a corrosive effect on us. Seneca letter 88. 29-30 reminds us about courage;

Bravery is a scorner of things which inspire fear; it looks down upon, challenges, and crushes the powers of terror and all that would drive our freedom under the yoke.

Courage in one’s convictions is a desired attribute when dealing with barriers such as stereotypes.  It takes a lot of will power to keep going in the chosen direction despite the vicissitudes of life. A part of the Stoic approach to courageous action would be an indifference to outward circumstances.  Indifference here does not mean laziness but rather not attaching happiness to a desired outcome, albeit that some outcomes will be preferred over others.

To conclude, Stoicism can assist women and others to gain resilience when navigating challenging aspects of life and whilst doing so maintain a dignity in character.  Take heed of Maya Angelou’s words in the poem Phenomenal Woman;

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Brittany Polat

Stoicism is a philosophy of life for everyone: men, women, and even children. The lessons it teaches apply to all of us, but because of the unique position women occupy in society, some of its lessons are particularly apt for women. One of these is how to properly approach social relationships. As any serious student of Stoicism knows, this is a philosophy that is built upon us fulfilling our social obligations with kindness and sincerity. At the same time, it teaches us how to be free of the guilt and anxiety that come with worrying about other people’s opinions of us. These are incredibly valuable tools for women, who are disproportionately expected to do the emotional labor in society.

Emotional labor is many things, but I like this definition of it:

Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.

It’s not just about writing thank-you notes and scheduling play dates for the kids. It’s about being everything to everyone and taking on other people’s emotions, burdens, and expectations. Many girls learn early on that they should be polished, accomplished, pleasing to others, and, above all, “nice.” No matter what else we do—cure cancer, pilot an aircraft, or run for president—we still have to be “nice.” (Oh, and we need to look great, too.) All this emotional labor is exhausting, sometimes unfulfilling, and for some women anxiety-inducing. It’s no wonder that women are consistently more stressed and anxious than men.

Enter Stoicism. Stoic philosophy teaches us what is truly important in life and inoculates us against the anxiety of superficial expectations. We learn to walk our own path toward virtue, to stay focused on what actually matters, and to relate to others with openness, kindness, and understanding. We learn that other people’s flaws are not a reflection of our own, and that we can stand up for what we believe in without getting upset or angry. It’s a powerful and liberating message. For some women, this means gaining the strength to leave abusive relationships. For others, it means fulfilling social obligations with contentment rather than dread. For all of us, it means applying practical wisdom to become brave, just, and self-controlled in our interactions with others. Instead of being trapped by our relationships, we become better and stronger through them.

If Stoic philosophy has such potential appeal for women, why does it seem like there are so few women Stoics? I think it comes down to a crucial distinction: seeing Stoicism as not just a philosophy, but as a philosophical way of life. There are people (mostly men, it seems) who love to debate Stoicism as an external system, without wanting to undergo the personal transformation that is required of a true prokopton. These are the men Epictetus scolded in his classroom 2,000 years ago, and these are the men who probably hang out in the darker corners of the Stoic internet today.

I can’t speak for all women, but I would venture to guess that most of us have little interest in this type of aggressive or inane pseudo-Stoic posturing. (We don’t have time for that—we’re out there doing all the emotional labor, remember?) What appeals to me is the confidence and contentment that result from a sincere effort to apply Stoic principles in real life. I think this what appeals to all Stoics—men and women—who are willing to transform their understanding of the world. There are many women out there right now trying to apply the teachings of Epictetus and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. But you may never hear from them, because they are too “nice” to argue with you.

One further point that may seem off-putting to women: the occasional unflattering reference in the ancient literature to women’s inferior abilities or disposition. Personally, I have no problem overlooking these references, because that’s what I’ve always done with texts written before the 21st century. It’s not surprising that the ancients held some unfavorable views of women, because that’s the way the world was at that time. But it is certainly disturbing that some men today would fixate on these passages. Contemporary readers who focus on unfavorable remarks about women in Stoic writings are adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of Stoic texts—which is definitely un-Stoic!

What is enduring about the Stoics is not their specific cultural beliefs (because cultural beliefs come and go), but rather their amazing insights into the universals of human nature. It is these insights—our rational and social nature, and our quest for meaning and happiness—that continue to inspire both men and women today.

Anitra Pavlico is a writer and attorney based in New York. She writes for 3 Quarks Daily and blogs about Stoicism at A Stoic Remedy

Natasha Brown is a Senior Social Worker with adults in North West England.  She has a keen interest in emotional health and Stoicism and how philosophy can be used to support wellbeing and emotional resilience.  

Brittany Polat holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics. She blogs about Stoicism, with a focus on personal improvement and family life, at Apparent Stoic. Her book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged is coming out in March.


Stoicism: A Kinder, Gentler Model for Creativity by Kathryn Koromilas

When I saw Piotr Stankiewicz’s Does Happiness Write Blank Pages: On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity appear on my social media feed, I had a dramatic reaction: “No! Piotr, no. It is unhappiness that writes blank—very, very blank—pages.” I was, of course, talking about me (as a creative does—me, me, me). And, I was, of course, talking about my own creative block, my trying to write the pages of the next great novel, but writing nothing at all, coming up blank. In his foreword to Stankiewicz’s comprehensive, complex, and fascinating thesis, the late Lawrence C. Becker, states what we all know too well: “Seeking to write the Great American novel, usually leads to despair, not happiness.”

Me. In a nutshell. Only that—given my birthplace—I was seeking to write the Great Australian Novel. Not important.

What is important, is that I, like anyone whose rational faculties are still functioning, and who wants to live a good, happy, and productive life, turned to Stoicism. Just like Stankiewicz—who is a poet (Romantic, I bet) as well as a philosopher—I was utterly “captivated” by the promise of this “optimization project” (110) called Stoicism. I was completely captivated “by the grandiose ambitions of the Stoic ethics which promise freedom from fear and doubt” (xxii). And I desperately wanted to rid myself of the fear and doubt that had so clouded my creative pursuits. In banal terms, I had writers’ block. In other, more real terms, I was depressed. In short, I wanted Stoicism to fix me—bring me happiness—so that I could start writing again.

What was I thinking? Didn’t I know that happiness does not have a reputation for leading us towards artistic heights? And the Stoics? They are not known for their creative talents! But a blocked writer will do anything to fill those white pages.

Speaking of white pages, Stankiewicz adopts Henry de Montherlant’s famous “happiness writes in white ink on white pages” phrase “as a tagline for the commonplace intuition that a content life cannot produce meaningful works of art.” Where does this commonplace intuition come from? This is, of course, the Romantic model of creativity, which emerged in 18th century Europe and shifted the burden of creative responsibility from the “gods” to the individual. The Romantics, to bring in an encyclopaedic description from the Britannica Online, were preoccupied with “the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure” and were focused on “passions and inner struggles” and a “new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator” who shuns “formal rules and traditional procedures…”

With that sort of a worldview, no wonder misery has prevailed over happiness for the last 200 years of our creative history. But the art, the art! Genius. Disruptive. Groundbreaking. New. Original. Unique. Singular. Montherlant’s ‘happy white writing’ then suggests that happiness does none of the creative breaking of new ground; it does nothing at all.

I don’t know much about Montherlant’s life but according to his New York Times obituary he killed himself in 1972 after having “sometimes praised and always defended suicide as a noble gesture, or man’s right, and a thing much better than ‘facing the void of inactivity’.” That’s the ultimate choice for the Romantic—produce genius or die.

The Romantics praised action over inaction, passion over calm, emotion over reason, chaos over order. Quite the opposite of the Stoics, weren’t they! So, what has Stankiewicz concluded about Stoics and creativity? To be clear, when Stankiewicz talks “creativity,” he is talking about the Romantic model (after all this is the most persistent, lingering, beguiling model we’ve inherited). It is the model of creativity that Steiner called “the highest capacity that human beings possess” (xvii); the creativity that Elzenberg called “the highest, most perfect embodiment of the sense of life;” the creativity that Pope called “invention,” the “highest capacity of man, a near-divine attribute.” It is the type of creativity, with all due respect, that Marcus Aurelius “lacked…completely.” Namely, “artistic creativity.”

This is how Stankiewicz goes about his exploration into whether artistic creativity is compatible with Stoicism. He embarks on an “intellectual inquiry” and his methodology is a “step-by-step” (21) approach in which he identifies several themes normally associated with creative motivation and output and then proceeds to argue whether these themes (motivations/outputs) are consistent with Stoic philosophy and practice, that is, with a Stoic life.

The themes, or artistic motivations, considered are, in order of appearance: fame (26), profit (30), preservation (42), expression (50), cognition (62), revolution (70), axiology (84), autotherapy (89), and didacticism (97). More specifically, “fame” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to “gain the acknowledgment and praise of fellow human beings,” such as “being famous,” or being “bestowed with prestigious accolades or even the “silent admiration” of the masses (26). “Profit” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to gain a “financial reward,” which could be money, material goods, earthly profits, such as a physical paycheck for a written text or physical performance (30). “Preservation” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to express or “capture some specific fragment of the universe and preserve it (42),” such as writing the Great American Novel or being the “Voice of a Generation” (47). “Expression” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to express the individual self, the unique and singular self of the artist (50), to narrate the artistic self or, even, to create the artist’s self-identity through the creative act (51). “Cognition” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to gather knowledge of the world through the creative act (62). “Revolution” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to transform the world, to change it, say at the socio-political level (70) where art is produced to achieve an end, that is, where artistic creativity “focuses on bringing about a concrete social or political transformation” (85). “Axiology” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity to “reshape the world” by adding value to it. Value is added by producing works of art that are valuable (not just beautiful) in themselves (85). “Autotherapy” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity “as a remedy to the personal experience of [the] meaninglessness of life (89) as in when Nietzsche says, in his The Birth of Tragedy, that at the point “when the will is in the highest danger, art approaches, as a saving, healing magician” (89).  Finally, “didacticism” is understood as the pursuit of artistic creativity as a “tool which serves to transmit and propagate knowledge, ideas, and wisdom” (97).

Of course, no creative artist’s motivations can be known in full, and most, surely, vacillate between one or more of these themes or even, at times, some themes appear most pronounced and urgent and, at other types, subdued, mixed, and hybrid. But, I certainly know what my motivations have been over the years and I’ve entertained almost all of the above. All, that is, apart from the “profit,” “didactic,” and “autotherapeutic” themes/motivations—I have always (until quite recently) vehemently eschewed these motivations. Speaking as the Romantic idealist—Art for money? No! Art for preaching? No! Art for self-obsessed, narcissistic, boring therapy? No!

Interestingly, though maybe not surprisingly, these “ordinary,” “mundane,” “non-Romantic” (107) creative motivations are the most consistently Stoic. Art for profit? Why, yes. Stankiewicz argues that, although Stoics train themselves in abstinence as a way of preparing themselves “for possible privations” they do not actually preach an ascetic lifestyle—that’s the “ascetic misinterpretation of Stoicism” (30). In fact, Stoics don’t reject monetary or other externals at all. Rather, they make wise use of them (39). Everything, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, can be “material for virtue, both rational and political” (39).

Art for didactic purposes? Yes. Stankiewicz (via Foucault and Hadot) argues that the Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius, adopted a “highly refined literary form” to record his thoughts and reflections. The form was meant to formulate rules for living with utmost precision to “ensure their psychological efficacy and persuasive force” (101). This, confirms Stankiewicz, is the “gist of the didactic theme” (101).

One of the most provocative teachings in Stoicism concerns our relationship with other human beings; a relationship which is often difficult and frustrating. As Stoics we are reminded that we are all made to live with each other. To this end, Marcus Aurelius tells himself (and us) to either teach our fellow humans or endure them. Literary excellence, then, is a way of communicating the rules of life with the most “striking maxims,” to quote Hadot, so that they can help us and our fellow humans when facing life’s difficulties.

Art as therapy? Maybe. Stankiewicz (via Foucault’s “The Care of the Self”) explores (in much more complexity than I can here) a “fundamental parallel” between autotherapeutic texts and Stoic texts (90). This is the common goal of “curing the hurting self.” In fact, the Stoic texts abound in medical metaphors: “put a scalpel to the wound; open an abscess; amputate and evacuate the superfluities” (90). That said, the Stoic remedy is a clear, consistent, philosophical path towards living the virtuous life but nowhere does the path include “living a creative life” (95).

The creative, autotherapeutic remedy is less philosophically consistent. For example, the Romantic creative could well desire a cure for their misery and thus produce great art, but then find that in order to continue producing great art, they must choose to continue suffering in actuality or even feign suffering. In On Anger, Seneca writes: “Often the pretense of passion will do what the passion itself could not have done.” 

Which brings me back to the relentless and unforgiving Romantic model of artistic creativity. Most of the motivations for creativity I’ve ever entertained have been Romantic motivations: I want to be a respected and admired novelist! I want to win that novel writing award! I want to write the Great Australian Novel! I want to be the Voice of my Generation! I want to write something vastly important and meaningful and valuable! I want to write my unique story!

A recipe for misery, indeed. Here is what Stankiewicz via the Stoics has concluded about these motivations.

First of all, my longing to be an admired and respected writer depends, obviously, on the minds, expectations, and reactions of others. If we know anything at all about Stoicism we all know about the dichotomy of control and how this simple maxim manages to clarify a whole lot of Romantic notions about the world and our central and unique place in it:

In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion; and in a word whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.

That’s Epictetus, and that’s the first thing he tells us, via Arrian, in his Handbook. Creating art, then, in order to win the good opinion of others is not consistent with Stoic philosophy and practice. Moreover, Seneca, quotes Stankiewicz, goes on to say that “praise is not a good” (28) and, worse, provokes us with this: “What can be more scandalous than a philosopher affecting popularity and applause.” Well, what can be more scandalous than a mediocre Australian writer trying to win popularity and applause…

That said, I often find that Stoicism oversimplifies things and that can be frustrating. Today, given our expanded reach—in terms of social, intellectual, and geo-mobility, individual choice, attainment of knowledge and skills—I feel that the dichotomy of control is less a dichotomy and more a continuum; but that might be my Romantic notions again. Take, for example, literary awards, competitions, and prizes. For the most part, these set clear and specific guidelines for what is a prizeworthy piece of work. Moreover, there are genres which clearly provide a model for what is acceptable and what is not. Given this level of transparency, don’t I have more control of the production of a work that might meet these guidelines and, therefore, be worthy of popularity, applause, and—why not—a literary award? What, then, does depend on me and what does not?

Moving on. What of my desire for posthumous fame; to be remembered after I’m gone, to make my living and my artistic pursuits somehow meaningful if they (and I via them) live on after my physical death. Again, not Stoic at all. “He who has vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon” (29). And to top all of that off we have Marcus Aurelius, in his infinitely melancholy tone (remember for a Romantic, melancholy is cool!), sounding not unlike Hamlet: “Where are they all now? Smoke and ash and a tale, or not even a tale. How many after being celebrated by fame have been given up to oblivion; and how many who have celebrated the fame of others have long been dead?” (43). It is thus inconsistent with Stoicism to write for posthumous fame. You just can’t depend on anyone to live long enough to remember you or to keep your books stocked on bookstore and library shelves.

Next. What does Stankiewicz and the Stoics say to my desire to write that Great Novel and to be heard as the Voice of My Generation? What of my desire to express my own uniqueness and singularity and thus be saved from oblivion? Un-Stoic! They say. It certainly seems quite plausible for me (for us) to wish to preserve something unique about a given moment in the world’s history—our own individual stories, “grand histories, objects and events of every kind, deeds, nations, religions, churches, cities” (42). Given the perishability (43) of beings and buildings and historical periods, it makes sense to want to keep a record of this. Marcus Aurelius, again, was obsessed by this: “Where are they all now?” (43).

But is artistic creativity which is focused on the preservation of unique, individual stories consistent with Stoic philosophy? The argument is complex, but in brief, no, says Stankiewicz. I think it goes like this. According to the Stoics, the universe is founded on the concept of the eternal return (44): “the universe we live in is just one instance in an infinite series of universes that have been coming one after another for an eternity to come.” So, although at the “local” or individual level, beings perish, “nothing ultimately disappears in the bigger picture” and nothing is ultimately forgotten. There is nothing new in the world (45). Everything is always the same (46). So, to expect to surprise with one’s unique little story and to deserve preservation or to be surprised by some unique work of art so much so that the work must be preserved because it is so surprising and unique and singular, is incoherent, “ridiculous” (48). In the Stoic universe, writes Stankiewicz, “there is no need for an artist to preserve anything. Everything preserves itself” (47). Ouch.

Fine. Next. What of my desire to write something meaningful, and important, and valuable? Not Stoic! Says, Stankiewicz. First of all, the notion of art as an axiological pursuit (a kind of ethico-aesthetic pursuit), a pursuit that adds “axia” or “value” to the world is preposterous! Now, this one is really hard for me to fathom. After all, I’m a Keats fangirl and have lived a lifetime chanting “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” and the purpose of Romantics such as Keats was to create such beauty and truth to add even more beauty and truth to the universe.

In the Stoic view, however, “the universe is by default excellent. It is intrinsically and absolutely perfect” (85) so no poet can add anything at all. You can’t add perfection to absolute perfection, even if you are Keats.  According to Epictetus, the universe is a “living being, rational, animate and intelligent” (85). If the world is perfect, writes Stankiewicz (again with much greater complexity and comprehensiveness than I can possibly relate here—I strongly recommend to everyone interested in how Stoicism can be applied consistently to our modern-day living and our modern-day angsts to purchase or borrow and read this book), then no artistic endeavour can possibly or necessarily make the world axiologically greater.

One argument after the other and the Romantic in me is deflated, defeated. Stankiewicz’s verdict is unequivocal: Stoicism and the Romantic model of creativity contradict each other. These two modes of life cannot go together. These two “great manifestations of the human spirit…cannot be embraced simultaneously.” The hard truth is that a “Romantic poet and a Stoic cannot be rolled into one” (108).

I must say (in fact, Stankiewicz says it for me) it is not without a “bit of sorrow” that we must come to this conclusion. So, if I aspire to Stoicism, I must give up on my Romantic creativity? This is quite a devastating defeat. Can’t we keep the Romantic divine and have Stoicism make us happy? Doesn’t Stoicism promise universality—that one can achieve virtue and, therefore, happiness under any circumstances? If the sage can be happy on the rack, if Sisyphus can be happy pushing up the same boulder for eternity, can’t I be happy as a miserable Romantic creative?

I have certainly seen the unhappy Romantic at work. I have met some of these human gods and watched them work, falling in love with them. Years later, as we talk more and more about mental health and creativity, I learn that the genius that I saw was also the paranoid schizophrenia of the one boy and the bipolar disorder of the other. On the Romantic view, the paranoia of the schizophrenic can write some genius dialogue. On the Romantic view the mania of the bipolar can produce some genius music. Both boys have since sought treatment to produce good, consistent work—it’s not all white lines on white pages—but also rejected treatment to descend into misery again only to be saved again.

Theirs was not the Stoic cure—Stoicism, Stankiewicz quotes from Becker, may not be able to bring happiness to all psychological conditions—there are exceptions to Stoic universality. In fact, some agents—creative agents with compulsive, obsessive, or addictive personalities—may logically reject the promise of Stoicism. Stoicism is not for everyone. Stankiewicz concludes that the human spirit will never fit into the one “narrow logic of any particular expression.” Thus, some of us will become Stoics, some of us may become Romantic artists. Some, like me, might spend a lifetime coveting the Romantic model, but ultimately coming to terms with the fact that she is much more suited to the Stoic way.

The Stoic way is a kinder, more gentle way of doing creativity and of living creatively. That sounds odd, to be sure, for Stoics have been charged with being inhumane, insensitive, and cold-blooded. I’ve said that myself. But you may have noticed that beyond the strict guidelines of conservative Stoic practice, there is something happening in the world of creative thinking and Stoicism might well have a role to play. Stankiewicz has certainly invited the Stoics to the discussion.

One contribution that comes to mind is Elizabeth Gilbert’s discussion of creativity in her book, Big Magic, which shifts away from the Romantic model of creativity in favour of an older, clearly classical model, with some very clear, though not consistent, Stoic notes. The subtitle for her book “Creative Living Beyond Fear” suggests that it could quite well be read as the pop companion to Stankiewicz’s theoretical treatise. After all, Stankiewicz’s personal commitment to this exploration, like Gilbert’s (and like mine) stems from wanting to live creatively without the fear and doubt (and misery) we’ve inherited from the Romantics. Stoicism can, if nothing else, treat this.

Stankiewicz in no way suggests a superficial or dishonest appropriation of Stoicism, but certainly suggests that as modern Stoics we must be “far more flexible than [our] ancient counterpart[s].” The Stoic creative “must be less of a fixed and immutable rock, which antiquity used to praise, and more of a malleable, self-aware, and self-conscious person which is capable of defining and re-defining herself.” If the Romantic is to happily transform into a Stoic, she will keep her “capacity and right to narrate a new story about herself…to change her identity if necessary…to shape her own evolution” (112).

I can live, and create, with that.

Kathryn Koromilas is a writer who leads the Stoic Writing Scene and The Stoic Writer, and participated in Stoic Week 2018. You can read her stories and find out more about her work at her website.

Minimalism is Not Enough by Massimo Pigliucci

My friend and former student (at the Stoic School in Rome) Chuck Chakrapani has written a worthwhile article entitled “Stoic Minimalism: Stripping the Dead Bark Off Orthodox Stoicism.” In it, Chuck pursues a project of updating Stoicism to the 21st century by identifying a set of core notions from ancient Stoicism that can be reformulated in modern day language. It’s the same kind of project that as occupied people like Larry Becker, Bill Irvine, and myself, among several others.

Chuck’s article is long, well written, and cogently argued, and I highly recommended. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, yes?) I think he pushes his minimalism too far. Specifically, Chuck makes two claims that I believe to be incorrect: (i) that of the three classical topoi of Stoicism, “physics,” “logic” and “ethics,” only the latter is necessary for modern Stoicism; and (ii) that Stoic ethics is self-contained and can be derived from first principles.

For instance, concerning point (i) he writes:

“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) I can confidently say my understanding of Stoicism has not increased any more than it did after reading one of the Harry Potter books.”

And concerning point (ii):

Stoic ethics is a self-contained 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 [sic] in physics or logic.

To begin with, I agree with Chuck that we shouldn’t be tied down to whatever the ancient Stoics wrote, with no attempt to improve and update. Stoicism is not a religion, Epictetus wasn’t a god, and the Meditations are not sacred scriptures. Indeed, the ancient Stoics themselves made this point planly clear:

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.

(Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)


(i) Why we still need physics and logic

The ancient Stoics built their philosophical system around the study of three “topoi” (areas of inquiry): physics, logic, and ethics. By physics they meant much more than the modern word encompasses, including essentially all the natural sciences, metaphysics, and theology. Physics, in other words, concerned itself with understanding how the world works.

Logic also had a broader meaning than the contemporary one, as it included not just formal logic – at which the Stoics excelled – but also informal reasoning, rhetoric, and even what we would call psychology and cognitive science. Anything that has to do with how to reason well.

Finally, ethics was not as narrowly defined as it is today, to indicate the study of what is right or wrong. Rather, it was the study of how to live a eudaimonic life, a life of fulfilment, or a life worth living.

The Stoics thought that the crucial point was to come to a good understanding of ethics, but that this required a decent grasp of both physics and logic. If we are profoundly mistaken about how the universe works, or if we can’t reason well, then we can hardly expect to figure out how to live a good life. Here is how Diogenes Laertius summarizes various metaphors used by the Stoics to get the point across:

They compare philosophy to an animal, likening logic to the bones and sinews, ethics to the fleshier parts, and physics to the soul. Or again, they liken it to an egg: the outer parts are logic, the next parts are ethics, and the inmost parts are physics; or to a fertile field, of which logic is the surrounding fence, ethics the fruit, and physics the land or the trees. Or to a city that is well fortified and governed according to reason. No part is separate from another, as some of the Stoics say; instead, the parts are blended together. And they used to teach them in combination.

(Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.40)


Now, Chuck claims that modern Stoicism can (and should) do away with physics and logic and just focus on ethics. He brings forth a number of reasons for it, which I find unconvincing. For instance, he points out that there were some ancient Stoics, like Ariston of Chios, who did just that. This is true, but it only shows that there were differences among the Stoics themselves on how to conceive and implement their philosophy. Like other ancient philosophical schools, Stoicism was characterized by a vibrant intellectual community, with different teachers espousing different, and sometimes novel ideas. For instance, Epictetus – near the end of the Roman period known as the late Stoa – introduced a significantly different type of “role ethics,” which improved on the original version put forth by Panaetius during the middle Stoa. The fact is, though, that Ariston was in the minority among the Stoics, as is clear from reading Diogenes Laertius, among other sources.

Chuck further brings up Posidonius, also from the middle Stoa, and a teacher of Cicero. He is right in reminding us that Posidonius treated ethics as the ultimate goal, but this was no departure from the standard approach: physics and logic had always, from the beginning, been instrumental to ethics, and not regarded as necessary on their own.

A third argument deployed by Chuck for the unimportance of physics and logic is that, allegedly, the Roman Stoics – Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Hierocles, Marcus Aurelius – only did ethics. While it is true that there was a significant shift toward ethics in the Roman period, it is also true that plenty of Roman Stoics still wrote about physics (e.g., Seneca’s Naturales Questiones) and logic. More importantly, we have direct evidence from their writings that they thought the other two topoi to be crucial. Let me give you a couple of examples:

When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much – whether it is necessary or not.

(Epictetus, Discourses II, 25)

Here Epictetus makes the obvious point that one simply cannot do without logic if one is interested in philosophy. Indeed, Chuck himself built an argument to dismiss physics and logic, but arguments are quintessential applications of logic, and if he didn’t know how to use logic properly he couldn’t even begin to construct the semblance of a reasonable argument.

What the late Stoics did say that both Chuck and I can agree on is that engaging in logic for logic’s sake – what is sometimes derisively called logic chopping – is useless and indeed damaging to the main goal of living a eudaimonic life. Here is Epictetus again:

If I admire the interpretation [of a philosophical treatise], I have turned into a literary critic instead of a philosopher, the only difference being that, instead of Homer, I’m interpreting Chrysippus.

(Enchiridion 49)

So, yes, indulging in logic for its own sake is definitely not Stoic, and not even the ancient Stoics – at least those from the late Stoa – would have disagreed. But they most certainly urged their students to study logic and acquire good reasoning skills, and so should we.

What about physics? It too is all over the writings of even the late Stoics. Hierocles’ famous metaphor of the various circles of concern (toward family members, friends, fellow citizens, and humanity at large) is certainly an ethical concept, but it is rooted in the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism, which in turn is based on a particular view of human beings as social animals capable of reason. The latter comes from physics, and informs the ethics.

Also, consider this:

Every part of me then will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe, and so on forever.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.13)

It’s one of several places in the Meditations were Marcus explicitly uses Stoic physics, and even physical concepts deriving from the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, to then derive ethical precepts. In the case of this particular quote, the Heraclitean panta rhei (everything changes), which is a metaphysical principle, is used to alter Marcus’ own ethical conduct, reminding him that he is part of a large dynamic cosmos, and that he should behave accordingly, for instance not resisting change just because it makes him feel uncomfortable.

That said, arguably (see? logic!) the most compelling part of Chuck’s defense of his notion that we should reject Stoic physics and logic is that they are hopelessly out of date with modern physics and logic. But are they, really?

Let’s start with the logic. The Stoics were arguably more advanced than Aristotle in that field, since not only they had arrived at a solid classification of syllogisms that kept medieval logicians busy for more than a millennium, but they had introduced propositional logic, which was the dominant approach in the field up until the late 19th century. The Wiki article on this is pretty good (though a more rigorous and in-depth overview can be found here). The article in part states:

[Propositional logic, aka zeroth-order logic] deals with propositions (which can be true or false) and argument flow. Compound propositions are formed by connecting propositions by logical connectives. The propositions without logical connectives are called atomic propositions. … All the machinery of propositional logic is included in first-order logic and higher-order logics. In this sense, propositional logic is the foundation of first-order logic and higher-order logic.

Bottom line: one does not need anything more than propositional logic to get the job done. So, to learn first and higher-order logics is great if you are a logician, mathematician, or computer scientist. But if your goal is to live a eudaimonic life, so-called zeroth order logic is all you need. And that’s the stuff the ancient Stoics came up with, and that is still valid today.

What about modern physics? Remember that the Stoic term actually includes all the modern natural sciences, metaphysics, and theology. Chuck is correct when he says that a lot of the details, as well as some general ideas, are to be rejected. So far as we know, for instance, the universe is not a living organism, and it is certainly not characterized by a pervasive “pneuma,” the highest form of which is the Logos – the ability of bits and pieces of the universe (i.e., us) to engage in rational thinking.

But major high-level pieces of Stoic physics are still in place, and they are crucial to Stoic ethics. To begin with, the idea that we live in a universe characterized by a complex web of cause and effect. This has direct implications for ethics because it makes Stoics into what modern philosophers call “compatibilists” about free will. What Chrysippus said on the matter still goes.

Moreover, universal cause-effect, coupled with materialism (i.e., the notion that everything that exists is made of some kind of stuff) are both still valid today (they are, after all, the metaphysical foundations of science) and have implications for Stoic ethics: the dichotomy of control would not operate in a metaphysically very different universe, and the Stoic notion that the our minds do not survive death would also be in question. Seneca derives our all attitude toward life from the idea that we are finite beings.

Both Stoic and modern physics and metaphysics tell us that the universe is a dynamic place, with change being the inevitable result of the laws of physics. And we have seen above that this has consequences for Marcus Aurelius’ ethics.

Even the concept of the Logos can actually be modernized to the notion that the universe is, in fact, organized according to rational principles (of unknown origin). This makes it possible for us to comprehend the world, and therefore to navigate it in a virtuous manner (not to mention to do science).

Finally, the famous Stoic injunction to live “according to nature,” a cornerstone of their ethics, is still derived today, as it was more than two millennia ago, from our understanding of human beings as social animals capable of rationality. That, as I mentioned above, is the foundation of Stoic cosmopolitanism, as well as the reason why Epictetus proposed a discipline of (ethical) action along the lines he did.

Bottom line: major parts of Stoic physics are both still valid and they are inextricably connected with the ethics. Major Stoic ethical concepts, from the dichotomy of control to living according to nature, would be floating in mid-air if disconnected from an understanding of Stoic physics.

(ii) Why Stoic ethics is not self-contained and cannot be derived from first principles

By this point it should actually be clear why Chuck’s second assertion is also incorrect. In the first place, his claim that ethics can be derived from first principles is not, alas, accompanied by any mention of such principles. He simply restates the basic axioms of Stoic ethics, without any defense of why one should adopt them instead of any alternative set of axioms, such as the Christian or Buddhist ones. They are most definitely not self-evident, in fact so much so that the Stoics themselves referred to several of their ideas as “paradoxa,” meaning uncommon opinions. So they do require justification, a justification that was provided, in the early Stoas, from physics via logic.

And indeed the relevant connection is precisely what I detailed in the previous section. One needs an understanding of cause-effect, materialism, and especially human nature, in order to arrive at the specific version of ethics proposed by the Stoics. Those connections are still valid and still needed today. Moreover, even if one could somehow do without the physics, just deriving conclusions from a set of axioms requires, you guessed it, logic!

Bottom line: one cannot derive Stoic ethical ideas from first principles, as a minimum understanding of how the world works is necessary. Furthermore, even if one could, one would still need logic to construct the resulting ethical system.

Contra my friend Chuck, therefore – and despite the value of many other aspects of his article – modern Stoicism still has to rely on both physics and logic to get to the ethics. What Zeno of Citium taught is still valid, 24 centuries later.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.