How To Be A Stoic When You Don’t Know How by Chuck Chakrapani

This is a summary of a talk I delivered at Stoicon-X in Athens and Toronto. It is based on a 10-week course on Stoicism developed by the Stoic Gym and is available in a book form, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. The actual course expands on these ideas, and is supported by 30 readings along with 10 specific exercises, one for each week, to reinforce the principles outlined below.

Barebones Stoicism

Stoicism, like most philosophical systems, has scores of concepts which could be confusing to a beginner. If we want to understand the basics of Stoicism to apply it to our daily life without having to master too many of the concepts, we can start with answers to  some basic questions.

What is the purpose of Stoicism? Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy. So, Stoicism is a philosophy whose aim is to steer us toward a happy and flourishing life or the good life.

What is the raw material we can use to create the good life? The raw material of the good life is not what most people think it is. It is not money, education, fame, reputation, or any of those but what Stoics call impressions. All our thoughts are impressions: ‘it is too hot’, ‘it is too cold’, ‘he is stupid’, ‘she is beautiful’, etc., are all impressions. Impressions are stimuli as they appear to us.

Someone gives $10 to a charity. You can see it in many ways: ‘He gave $10,’ or ‘He cares about helping,’ or ‘He is so stingy.’ Such impressions are the raw material from which we need to construct the good life. We commonly accept our impressions to be true. However, to be happy, we need to judge the impressions to see if they correct or incorrect. If we consistently make correct judgments about our impressions, it will lead to the good life.

How do we make sure that our judgments are correct? To make sure our judgments are correct, we apply four special skills (known as ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can reinforce these skills through the use of three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

This, in essence, is how I see barebones Stoicism. (This is not the only way to understand Stoicism, but just one of the many possible ways we can frame our understanding.)

The Stoic house: A metaphor

From here on, I will the use the metaphor of a house, with the foundation going in four different directions, with four walls, three widows and a roof sloping in two directions.

The Foundation

What is happiness or the good life? It’s a life without friction, “a life that flows smoothly” (Zeno). This means that we are not at odds with ourselves or with the world. But our life seldom flows smoothly. It’s full of complaints: the wifi is too slow, the coffee is too cold, the room is too hot, I should have done this, she should not have done that, what if the interview doesn’t go well, I wish I had more money, this list of complaints is stupid … it goes on and on. We are not gliding on the highway of life but are stuck on a crowded city street full of potholes and stoplights with tailgaters behind us and erratic drivers ahead of us– and we are already late.

Why do we have all these problems? Why can’t we glide on the highway of life? Simple, the Stoics said. We have all these problems because we don’t live in accordance with nature. What does that mean?

Our problems are created by our inability to live in accordance with nature. Living in accordance with nature means two things: Living in accordance with human nature and living in accordance with the world outside of us. What is our nature? Rationality. What distinguishes us from all other animals is that we can use our reason – something that other animals cannot do. What is the nature of the world outside of us? The nature of the world is the totality of what’s happening, the way things are. Therefore, those who live in accordance with nature are not at odds with themselves or with the world.

Our problems are created by our reactions to what happens to us. We often believe that we are happy or unhappy because of what happens to us. In reality, we process what happens to us and label them good or bad. This is what leads to happiness or unhappiness. Two people may lose their jobs under similar conditions. One may think that it is disastrous and get depressed. The other person may look upon it as an opportunity to review one’s life and career path and perhaps find a better career alternative. Two people may get very similar medical reports highlighting some health issues. One may be dismayed to get such a report and the other might think that it is a good wake-up call to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Our happiness depends on how we react to what happens to us.

What we cannot control should be nothing to us. We spend a considerable part of our mental life trying to fix things that cannot be fixed. Let us look at some common expressions, “You shouldn’t have done that,” “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Of all days, why is it raining on my day off?” They are all expressions of trying to mentally rearrange what cannot be changed. We do it whether it is a minor crisis (“I should have taken the earlier train”) or a major one (“It’s terrible that I got sacked. Why me?”). Most of our problems will disappear if we learn not to fight or worry about what we cannot control. They are nothing to us.

We should act on what is under our control. While we are busy controlling what is not under our control, we fail to control what is under our control. When you lose your job, instead of spending the day trying to mentally justify why you shouldn’t have been fired, you can enjoy your next meal and look for another job. When you are sailing, you can blame the wind that is against you (not under your control) or adjust your sails (under your control). If we are after the good life, we not only need to ignore what is not under our control, but act on what is.

The Walls

The foundations, critical as they are, cannot make a house. The fundamental principles of Stoicism tell us what is under our control and what is not and what leads to unhappiness. But not everything that is under our control is worth doing. To decide whether our judgments are correct or not we need four special skills (also called ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. In our Stoic model, the walls of the house correspond to these virtues.

Special skill Purpose
Wisdom What to do and what not to do
Justice Who things belong to and who deserves them
Moderation What to choose and what not to choose
Courage What to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of

Wisdom answers the question of what to do and what not to do. We confine our actions to what is under our control and do not waste our time and energy on things not under our control. This is the first cardinal virtue of Stoicism and the basis of all other virtues as well. Wisdom tells us that externals such as wealth, health, and reputation are not under our control while internals such as what we choose to think, feel, and act upon are under our control. To act wisely means treating externals with indifference and valuing our thinking, feeling, and actions as the sources of our happiness.

Justice is giving everyone their due. It is the realization that we are not isolated islands in the sea of humanity but a part of a larger whole. We are a part of our family and friends, which are a part of the society we live in, which in turn is a part of the world, and so on. So, our connection starts with people who are closest to us and extends outwards. We cannot hope to be happy if what we do is not good for our society. The special skill of justice urges us to understand that

What is not good for the hive cannot be good for the bee.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

and develop a sense of justice that will eventually contribute to our happiness.

Moderation or self-control is the stabilizing influence. Its purpose is to guide us towards what we should choose and what we should reject. The skill of moderation avers that things carried to an extreme can be harmful. Stoicism is not ascetic, and it does not prohibit our enjoying a good meal or a glass of wine (as long as we don’t treat these things as indispensable for our happiness). However, even things that are not necessarily harmful such as food and drink, if indulged without restraint or can harm us and hinder our realizing eudaemonia.

We are often afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of and not afraid of things we should be afraid of. Courage is the special skill that shows us what is terrible that we should be afraid of and what is not terrible that we shouldn’t be afraid of.

We are afraid of things such as poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death.  We are less concerned about our judgments. The special skill of courage teaches us not to be afraid of things like poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death. They are all external to us. Things like illness and death are natural and therefore not terrible. Things we are commonly frightened about are not really frightening.  What is truly frightening, and we should be afraid of, are our bad judgments. As long as an external thing does not the relate of our judgment, we have nothing to be afraid of anything external.

The Windows

How do we develop these four special skills needed to achieve eudemonia? By practicing three disciplines: the discipline of assent, the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire. These are three windows of our Stoic house.

The discipline of assent: We defined impressions as ‘stimuli as they appear to us’. But impressions can be wrong. Someone who appeared rude to you because she ignored you may just be shy. Someone who you thought was unintelligent because he couldn’t focus on things could be going through a personal crisis. The discipline of action asks of us to review our initial impression to determine whether it is internal or external to us and whether we want to assent (agree with) our impression. A false impression will have no impact on us if we do not assent to it. So, the discipline of assent helps us to develop the skill of wisdom.

The discipline of action: When we understand that we are part of a larger whole, we act to make the whole better. So we act for the betterment of our family, friends, country, and the world. This is the discipline of action and it helps us develop the skill of justice.

The discipline of desire: To develop the skill of moderation we need to rein in our desires and to develop the skill of courage by not giving in to our aversions or fears. The discipline of desire, therefore, helps us hone the skills of moderation and courage.

The Roof

Now we come to the roof of our Stoic house. The roof is sloping in two directions, corresponding to our daily practice and enjoying the festival of life.

Daily practice. Stoic philosophy is not a theoretical discipline created for the intellectual enrichment of scholars, but a practical philosophy created for the life enrichment of its practitioners. Daily practices are ‘spiritual exercises’, as Pierre Hadot pointed out.  All theoretical principles we discussed thus far are of no value unless we put those principles into practice.

How do we put these principles into practice? There are many ways, such as:

  1. Doing Stoic exercises every day.  One way is to explore the Stoic exercises described in books, articles, and blogs and select a few exercises to do on a daily basis. They can include morning and evening meditations, premeditatio malorum (‘negative visualization’), and the like. They will all help.
  2. Reading Stoic materials regularly.  Or we may choose to read the Stoic literature first thing in the morning every day and think about it. This will help us remember Stoic principles when we need to use them.
  3. Using Stoic slogans. We can memorize a number of Stoic slogans and use them as occasions arise.
  4. Using metaphoric or humorous expressions. This usually makes light of the situation. For example, when we feel upset about any aspect of reality, we may want to repeat to ourselves the line from the song, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”:

“Cause I’m never gonna to stop the rain by complaining, because I am free.

When we try to control an external thing and it doesn’t work, we might want to say to ourselves

Well, that handle didn’t work! (This is in reference to Epictetus’ comment that everything has two handles. If one handle doesn’t work, try the other.)

When you catch yourself worrying about what is not under our control.

This none of my business. Who put ME in charge?

In general, it doesn’t matter which method you use – reading daily, practicing Stoic exercises everyday, using slogans, or using humor to deflate the problem – as long as it is practiced consistently.

Enjoying the festival of life. Eudemonia is more than simply not feeling miserable irrespective of what happens around us or to us. It is also about enjoying the ‘festival of life’.

Why not enjoy the festival of life when it is given to you to do so?

Epictetus

Above all, Lucilius, learn to feel the joy!

Seneca

But where is this festival of life happening? Right here, right now. We don’t need to go to exotic places or exquisite restaurants to feel the joy. The beauty is all around us. Marcus Aurelius ruled the largest empire the world had ever known until then and was the most powerful person in the world. He could have had any pleasure his power and wealth could buy. What did he find charming and attractive?

We should also remember the casual grace and charm of nature. A loaf of bread splits open in the oven; random cracks appear on it. These unintended flaws are right and sharpen our appetite. Figs, when they ripen, also crack open. Olives, when they are about to fall just before they decay, appear more beautiful. So are drooping stalks of wheat, the wrinkling skin of a staring lion, foam from a wild boar’s mouth, and many more such sights. There is nothing beautiful about these sights when we see them in isolation. Yet, due to some other process of nature, they become charming and attractive.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.1

This charming and attractive world, this ‘festival of life,’ is given to us. It is for us to enjoy it.

How To Be A Stoic When We Don’t Know How

The foundation of Stoicism is understanding that we need to live in accordance with nature, that we create our problems by our judgments about the world, and that we can mitigate our problems by ignoring what we cannot control and acting on what we can. To implement the fundamental principles, we need four special skills: wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can develop these four skills through three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

Once we understand the fundamentals and have methods of implementation, we can sustain them through our daily practice and learning to enjoy the festival of life.

This is the house of Stoics. This, in my view, is how to be a Stoic when we don’t know how.

Chuck Chakrapani is the editor of THE STOIC magazine and the author of many books on Stoicism including How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. He is the president of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.

The Post-Traumatic Stoic by Jennifer Hullinger

Having been born to abusive parents, fate was less than kind to me. Mom’s flavor of abuse was of bitterness and blame toward me for being stuck in a bad relationship. She expressed her disdain both passively through neglect, and actively through screaming matches. Dad expressed his resentment much more physically. The pungency of his words had a lengthy shelf-life, and he often dealt in bruises, gashes or broken bone. Most of their energy was spent lashing out toward each other than raising a daughter, which was both a blessing and a curse. They can’t abuse what they aren’t paying attention to, but still a lonesome existence. Some of my earliest memories were of Mom and Dad fighting. Trying to find sleep during shouting is a difficult task, one I rarely managed. Our extended family either couldn’t help the situation, or simply refused to even acknowledge it was happening.

In my youth, an ability to distinguish between good reasoning and the irrational had yet to develop. There was little strength within me to grasp anything that would help break my chains.There seemed no way of escaping this terrifying situation. All a child can do is endure, and perhaps seek an explanation, if not a way of coping with such a broken spirit. As I grew older I became quite influenced by my father’s religious discourse, reading the Bible often. Most of the time this was a form of punishment for behavior he deemed sinful, but honestly it was a brilliant way to pass the time. I secretly enjoyed this penalty. There are profound lessons in the Bible, some I still not only utilize, but appreciate: 

“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Proverbs 9:7-9

This passage made me realize that correction was not about bruising my ego, but an opportunity to achieve a growth in virtue. I still consider this passage when someone sheds a light upon an error in my thinking. Of course, it’s one of many portions of the text that I find useful and wise. However, there seemed to be something missing. What of the values I cultivated through my life’s experience? Despite the plethora of wisdom offered in Proverbs, I could not bring myself to agree with statements like:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.

Punish them with the rod and save them from death.

Beat them with the rod, and you will save them from Sheol.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 

Being hit as a kid was a traumatic, and very damaging to my emotional and physical wellbeing. I cannot in good conscience advocate rod usage of any sort as a productive discipline tactic. Upon reading this, I felt my thirst for wisdom had to be quenched from multiple founts of knowledge as opposed to one. Guidance suited for my personal experience needed to be further studied, and from as many sources as possible. Perhaps I could even find one that agrees with my principles regarding corporal punishment. However, while still living with Dad, my philosophical education was limited to Biblical or Bible-adjacent sources until I reached around thirteen years of age. 

In the forefront of this development, Mom frequented hospitals with various injuries courtesy of Dad’s rage. Typically the injuries were a broken rib or two, but if she “made him” really angry, he would inflict worse. Apparently the rod is not merely a utility for the discipline of children, but wives as well. Between these visits, Mom and I would run to the safety of her parents for a brief period of time, usually a weekend. After hearing his pleas for forgiveness, and inevitably our return, she would typically succumb. This pattern repeated until one fateful day, we left him and never returned.

Finally, after divorcing Dad, Mom decided to continue her college education. I was enrolled in public school again, which was pretty exciting for us both. We were able to bond over studies, pour over literature, and critique each other’s poetry. Mom and I deeply connected on this level, and whenever either of us found thought provoking text, we would read and discuss the material. The door opened wide; I couldn’t wait to walk right through to finding the key to personal freedom and contentment I so desperately needed. I had not anticipated just how many wonderful thinkers there have been throughout history. This was especially fun when she was taking History of Philosophy, or the semester I attended Applied Ethics. 

However, years of bondage and living in terror got the best of Mom, and she became more of a friend than a moral authority who provided a safe and loving environment for a child. She spent a lot of her time at various bars, sometimes having me tag along with the insinuation that it was a girl’s night out, but in truth I was her babysitter. She would get drunk, go through boyfriends like water, and leave me to fend for myself, sometimes for as long as a month. If I hadn’t made friends at school, I probably would have not had enough food to eat during the times mom would disappear.

Dad was no longer in the picture at all, and we were essentially isolated from the rest of the family still. As Mom took out years of frustration and trauma on me, emotional abuse didn’t cease, only the flavor changed from bitter to downright melancholy. She even revealed that I was the result of guilt she felt over an abortion long before her pregnancy with me. Basically letting me know, for sure, that neither one of my parents wanted me. The logical conclusion I came to at that time was: my mom suffered abuse because of me, a perception that rooted me in deep despair for years to come. Anger consumed my heart and haunted my soul. The particular wisdom I required would not arrive on my horizon until right after my marriage inevitably failed because I had not yet reigned in my feelings of rage and emptiness. Upon going back home to Mom, head hung in shame, with wrath still gripping my heart, I stumbled upon a passage in this book Mom had on her shelf called The Enchiridion, by Epictetus:

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

When I read this passage, it wasn’t some moment of clarity, but only furthered my rage. How dare he suggest that no one had harmed me! Whether out of my control or not, it still hurt. Who was this man to dare to deny me my suffering!? In a huff, I decided right then I was done with Stoics, and they had nothing to offer me in terms of real wisdom.

As time passed, and events progressed in my life, including university, a couple of kids, and the death of my mother, I stumbled across Stoic thought once more, rather by accident. By this time, I had already sought therapy to help me cope after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder around thirty years old. The clinician recommended a psychological treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This method, developed by Aaron Beck and inspired by Epictetus, works through emotions by questioning the thoughts behind them.

CBT challenges belief systems that are based on cognitive pitfalls such as catastrophizing, or generalizing. The goal is to realize how closely tied these set beliefs are to our perception of the world. Suddenly you see how important it is to pay attention to how you come to conclusions, and how the can often be in error. Why feel upset about a belief justified on a generalization, or any irrational, faulty opinion? Was fascinating to me how such a successful coping strategy was molded from Stoic reasoning. 

Enticed by how helpful CBT had been for me, I rethought my assessment of Epictetus, and upon discovering he had been a slave, embarrassment overwhelmed me. In my rage, I failed to see the ingenuity of the claim that provoked so much fury, and the reason for my reaction. Of course, the irony of getting offended by someone telling me that it was my view of things that offended me was not missed in retrospect. Still grants me a good chuckle looking back. Was only my view of this passage that bothered me. It just goes to show that sometimes the most important message of wisdom one can receive for their life struggles takes not only being offered, but also being prepared to accept. Often the most necessary step to take to avoid faulty reasoning is the most challenging, first you gotta be ready to admit you made an error. 

For years, the dominant motivation I utilized was fury, but I had grown so weary of this destructive dynamic. It was exhausting, and not at all making circumstance any easier. What kind of example did this offer my kids? I had to change; something had to give, if not for me, but for them. If there’s any type of therapy that offers tangible results to souls suffering from traumatic experience, it begs for attention. I can say, without hesitation, that CBT was a very successful tool for my healing process. However, it is best to talk to your clinician to see if this method would be appropriate for your own mental health care.  

After exposure to more Stoic application, my interest in the topic piqued. I began exploring other Stoic sources. A friend of mine referenced Seneca’s On Anger.  After reflection on this text, finally weary of my wrath, it seemed the next necessary step was to heed Seneca’s advice on avoiding rage. Having seen how untethered anger can manifest in adults, and the damage it can cause to others, the notions expressed in this essay felt so serendipitous.There was no way this rotten vice was going to be passed on to my children, and honestly I think perhaps my parents had fallen prey to their passion rather than merely inflicted pain upon me. 

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it.

On Anger, Section 8

This definitely highlights what I had found true of anger: it takes over the better parts of the person, the loving, caring, more reasonable ones. If I was going to conquer this passion, I had to rein it in before it began. But what of the powerful feeling I got from choosing anger as a motivator?

Finally, I ask, is anger stronger or weaker than reason? If stronger, how can reason impose any check upon it, since it is only the less powerful that obey: if weaker, then reason is competent to effect its ends without anger, and does not need the help of a less powerful quality.

On Anger, Section 8

After On Anger I couldn’t get enough of the Stoics. Knowing I had the power to stop my anger before it took over was a life-changing realization. In traffic, waiting rooms, when my toddler would throw a fit – any chance I got to practice stifling the rise of anger I took it. Instead of anger being a source of my weakness, I decided to allow it to be a source of celebration. This built up my sense of confidence, which obviously never can change the past, but did give me better tools to deal with the challenges my past offered. The dichotomy of control was a principle that opened my horizons:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, chapter 1

Seems like such a simple and obvious solution, but one I had completely missed through my struggle: focus on what you can control, and don’t worry so much about what you cannot. This is a practice that is constant in life, and while it’s not easy, this does place things in perspective. This notion of tranquility through acknowledging limits of my control, and sustaining focus upon thought quality pulled me out of the nagging despair I felt the majority of my life.

 Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things… An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 5

My entire life, I had given in to the notion that just because my parents treated me badly, I was worthless and unworthy of love. No wonder I felt so disturbed, angry, and unhappy! Instead of responding to a life I was actually granted, this projection dominated my view. After years of struggling with rage and powerlessness, arose an unfamiliar feeling of contentment in this realization.

Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived… Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 42

“It seemed so…” to me. Am I actually able to achieve happiness despite what fate had so coldly given me? I think so, and since beginning to put Stoic philosophy into practice, there have been some significant changes in my life. I no longer fly off the handle when circumstances don’t go the way I wanted them to, and give less significance to actions that are not my own. My concerns about gossip, hardships, illness and death are lessened significantly. These days, my focus tends to be on how I may think and act better. At times, I even find peace in moments, especially when striving toward values learned from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. One of the most important life lessons gained from my study of Stoic philosophy was to accept life as is.

To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Although I am no Sage by any measure, after years of clinging to a negative and defeatist view of life, Stoicism has helped me let go of one toxic element of life at a time. When successful in the practices learned from Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have reason to be proud of myself. Failure serves as a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of our own thoughts and actions. I still have a long road ahead of me to achieve anything resembling tranquility or Stoic right reason, but hopefully fate shall grant me the joy of breaking a very damaging, violent cycle.

Jennifer Hullinger is a mother of two, avid reader, and lover of wisdom. She runs a Youtube channel, Missus Snarky, where she and her friends share their political and philosophical views. Jennifer attended Sam Houston State University in Texas where she studied Psychology and Sociology, and has a real passion for knowledge. 

Stoics and Epicureans on Facing Pain and Death Positively by Katharine O’Reilly and Chris Gill

Introduction 

This post is based on a joint workshop we offered at the Stoicon-X in London on October 13 2019, on ideas about facing pain and death offered by the ancient Stoics and their main contemporary rivals, the Epicureans. The core idea shared by both these theories is that, if you achieve wisdom, you will be well-placed to deal with things generally regarded as among the worst dimensions of human life – enduring extreme physical pain and facing the prospect of your own death. Katharine focused on a letter supposedly written by Epicurus shortly before his death and at a time of intense physical pain. Chris discussed the Stoic version of a  well-known ancient philosophical ideal, that of the wise person happy on the rack of torture. We give here the text of these talks, which were followed by a vigorous debate on these ideas and their value as a basis for life-guidance under modern conditions. 

Epicurus on Facing the Pain of Death Positively

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Epicurean view on facing pain and death positively via a puzzle about the day of Epicurus’ own death.

First, to understand why there is a puzzle, you need to know a few things about Epicurean philosophy, founded by Epicurus. The first is that they are hedonists, which means that they took pleasure to be the ultimate good and pain the ultimate evil. Pain, whether physical pain or mental anguish, is certainly to be avoided. But it’s not to be ignored – they call pleasure and pain a ‘criterion’ – these feelings give us important information about ourselves and our bodies, so they’re taken very seriously. The second thing to know about the Epicureans is that they didn’t consider death to be an evil. They conceived of death as the end of sensation, and where you don’t feel, you can’t feel pain. You can’t feel pleasure either, but they’re not bothered about that, because you aren’t there to be aware of any deprivation.

With that as background, let me introduce you to this puzzle. It comes from this fascinating letter we have which was apparently written, from Epicurus to his friend Menoeceus, while Epicurus was on his deathbed. He died aged 71 from kidney stones, which, even with the resources of modern medicine, is a very painful affliction, and with only ancient pain relief this would be a slow and excruciating way to die. Here is what he says:

Here is the letter to Idomeneus which he [Epicurus] wrote on his deathbed: ‘I wrote this to you on that blessed day of my life which was also the last. Strangury and dysentery had set in, with all the extreme intensity of which they are capable. But the joy in my soul at the memory of our past discussions was enough to counterbalance all this.’’

Excerpt from Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 10.22 [Usener 138], trans. Long & Sedley, 1987.

The reason this testimony is so puzzling is that it seems to put a contradiction in Epicurus’ mouth: he at once says that he is in extremely intense pain, and yet, at the same time, feels a joy of the soul, which, on his view, amounts to a pleasure. Since part of the Epicurean conception of pleasure is an absence of pain, the claim that he is living painlessly and therefore joyfully and yet, at the same time, experiencing the greatest physical pain of his life is extraordinary.

Now you might think that what Epicurus means to convey in the letter is that even though he’s in physical pain, he’s not suffering mentally, which is why he refers to a joy ‘in his soul’. This might be something like Haruki Murakami’s running mantra: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2009). But even a story about Epicurus being free of mental pain while in physical pain would not straightforwardly solve the puzzle, since our best evidence suggests that the painlessness which constitutes Epicurean pleasure requires freedom from both types of pain. It’s also not the case that well-trained Epicureans are immune to pain. The Epicurean sage is still subject to pain, as Diogenes Laertius’ report tells us:

… the wise man… will be more affected by feelings – for they would not hinder his progress towards wisdom… even if the wise man is tortured on the rack, he is happy… when he is tortured on the rack he will moan and groan… the wise man will feel pain…

Diogenes Laertius, ‘Report of Epicurus’ Ethical Views’ 10.117-119, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

In the deathbed letter, Epicurus credits this joyful state to the memory of past discussions with his friend and fellow Epicurean. He says that these memories ‘counterbalance’ the physical pain. But there’s a big question about what this means, how it would work, and whether it would work.

There are two main ways scholars suggest it could work: the first is a kind of distraction model. This is where Epicurus is conceived of as using memories to distract himself from the pain, in the way we might when we’re in the dentist’s chair and start going through our ‘to do’ list, or thinking about our holiday, or doing any mental work we can to take our minds off the physical pain. There’s some evidence that Epicurus wasn’t immune to the idea of finding an analgesic solution which would help him ignore his pain. Another report from Diogenes Laertius tells us that he warded off pain, at the very end of his life, with a warm bath and a stiff drink:

He died of kidney stones, as Hermarchus too says in his letters, after an illness of fourteen days. At that point, as Hermippus also says, he got into a bronze bathtub filled with warm water, asked for unmixed wine, and tossed it back. He then bade his friends to remember his teachings and died thus.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.15-16, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

There’s an alternative reading of what happens on Epicurus’ deathbed that I want to suggest to you. This is that rather than distracting himself with these memories, Epicurus could instead be thought of as deeply engaging with memories of past pleasures which he has gratefully and consistently recollected throughout his life. As an Epicurean sage, there is evidence that Epicurus would have engaged in a therapeutic practice which involved training his memory to vividly recollect and almost re-live past pleasures.

Some fragments tell us that the sage is distinguished most by this ability, and that remembering pleasures is crucial to living a pleasant life (Plutarch, Non Posse 1089c; 1099d [Usener 436]). The idea of this deep engagement is that rather than merely distracting oneself from pain, one is engaging with past pleasure in such an intense way that it’s tantamount to re-living it. Indeed, since Epicurus cites the recollection of conversations with a fellow Epicurean philosopher, we might imagine that the content of their conversation would also have a calming effect. This might have included arguments against the fear of pain and death, such that there is some philosophical and therapeutic content to re-engage with. On this model, we are still aware of the present pain, but the re-living of past pleasure somehow tips the scales and counterbalances it such that, overall, it is joy that is experienced. 

While distraction versus deep engagement may seem a subtle difference, I think it’s an important one in terms of explaining how memories could counterbalance such extreme pain. On the face of it, if I’m in excruciating pain, the mere memory of a pleasurable time won’t do me much good. It might even heighten my experience of pain by comparison, as when I experience hunger pains, and recall a wonderful meal from the day before. So we need to be clear about exactly what Epicurus describes in his letter, and how the Epicurean practice differs from what us non-sages might do while in pain, in order to gauge whether it is a story we should take seriously. I therefore opened the Q&A period in our workshop by asking the audience the following questions, which I invite you to consider, too:

  • What might it mean to be in extreme pain, yet for that pain to be ‘offset’ by a joy of the soul from remembered pleasures?
  • Is it plausible that the memory of past pleasures, if engaged with in a certain way, could be effective against present pain? 
  • Is the stance shown by Epicurus one that we can imagine adopting ourselves in such a situation?

The Stoic wise person happy on the rack of torture

The idea that the wise person (the ideal person), is happy even on the rack of torture is not a uniquely Stoic one (there are Platonic and Epicurean versions) but it is a well-known theme in Stoicism and one that can help to open up their thinking on facing pain and death. What is the idea based on? On the face of it, being happy while being tortured is just weird. I’ll look at three relevant features of Stoic thought: about happiness, ethical and emotional development, and social commitment. 

First happiness. The term  ‘happiness’ tends to be used in modern English to describe short-term moods (‘I’m feeling happy today’, symbolised by the smiley face). In fact, there is an emotional dimension in the Stoic idea of happiness, as I’ll explain shortly. But being happy (eudaimon in Greek) is, primarily, in Stoicism, to live the best possible human life, to live the life ‘according to nature’, as they often put it. What is that life? It’s sometimes defined by Stoics as fulfilling the best possible qualities of being human, that is, being rational and sociable (the distinctive features of the human animal).

Happiness is also based on achieving a completely unified and coherent character and understanding, and being able to take care of yourself and others of your kind (that is, other human beings) in the best possible way. Happiness also depends on developing the virtues, typically seen as the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice, regarded as an interdependent set of virtues. The happy person is the one who has developed these qualities and made them fundamental to her character and understanding. So why is this kind of person happy even on the rack of torture? She is happy in this situation because she is happy in any situation, including extremely painful or life-threatening ones.

These are qualities – having the virtues, being unified, caring for oneself and others – that go to the core of someone’s identity or character, and they are not lost because the person experiences extreme pain and pressure or compulsion. They are also qualities (notably the virtue of courage) which enable someone to resist the effects of extreme pain and pressure. So it’s natural that the wise person (the ideal human being) retains these qualities even under torture.

So far, it may seem, from a modern standpoint, that the Stoics produce the desired result (showing the wise person is happy on the rack) by redefining what ‘happiness’ means, namely as being virtuous, psychologically unified and so on. So modern people may feel that the ‘mood’ or ‘emotion’ aspect of happiness has just been left out. Actually, that’s not the case. But the force of the Stoic view depends on the belief that ethical development, that is, becoming virtuous, changes the quality of your emotional life and responses. Specifically, it means that you stop experiencing what the Stoics regard as bad or misguided emotions (sometimes called passions) and start to experience what they call ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai).

There are two main differences between these two kinds of emotions. The passions are based on what the Stoic see as false beliefs about what is good and bad, and about happiness and its basis. One such false belief is that what is really good in life is sensual pleasure, or wealth or celebrity, as opposed to happiness based on virtue. Secondly, bad emotions are typically intense, sometimes also internally conflicted or painful, and overwhelming in their effect; good emotions are calm, in line with the person’s judgements and reasoning, and do not generate internal conflict or overwhelm the person involved. Typical bad emotions are fear, anger, and hatred: typical good ones are joy, wish, and caution.

So the happy person (the ideal Stoic wise person) has a positive and a congenial emotional state (she feels happy in a modern sense) and does so under any circumstances, however extreme. The difference comes out in the likely reactions to torture of the two types of people – the wise and the defective or foolish person. The defective person is likely to experience intense and conflicted emotions in this situation, such as fear, anger, hatred, regret at having put herself in this situation, as well as being acutely aware of the physical pain. The wise person will also feel the pain (the Stoic wise person is not immune to physical pain).

But she will put the pain in perspective: pain is not the worst thing in the world, compared with becoming a corrupt and morally defective person. She will also bear in mind her reasons for being in this situation at all (I’ll come to this point shortly) and the importance of these reasons. So, altogether, she will experience a calm, coherent and positive emotional state – she will be at one with herself even in this situation, even though feeling this kind of pain is not something any normal human being would want to experience. In this respect, the wise person is also ‘happy’ on the rack in a modern sense.

There is a third dimension of this idea, in the Stoic version. It is worth asking the question: why is the wise person on the rack of torture at all? Typically, in these cases, people are being tortured for a reason: to force them to disclose information or as punishment for a past action. In the Stoic version of this idea, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise person is being tortured because of his commitment to a social, political or military role. Stoic ethics, in sharp contrast to Epicurean ethics, presents involvement in family and political life as a normal part of a full human life. So, implied in the Stoic version of this ideal is the thought that the wise person undergoes torture as a consequence of his social commitment (I’ll give a Stoic example shortly).

This gives an added level to the happiness of the wise person, even in these extreme circumstances. He is happy because his actions in this situation express commitment to a role or obligation that he sees as being crucially important in his life. This role provides a proper context in which to exercise the virtues, including the virtue of courage or what the Stoics call ‘magnanimity’ – that is, rising above current difficulties with the aim of performing a genuinely worthwhile act, which benefits other people or the community as a whole. Some of the other marks of happiness, such as psychological cohesion or unity, and freedom from misguided emotions or passions, are also naturally linked with his single-minded commitment to fulfilling one’s social role, and thus not disclosing information wanted by the torturer or accepting the torturer’s dominance. This social dimension helps to make sense of the Stoic ideal and to bring out the rationale for the idea that the wise person is happy even in this situation. 

I’ll end by discussing some possible ancient and modern examples of the Stoic ideal. The Roman general Regulus is taken by Cicero, in On Duties 3, as an example of this kind of ideal. Regulus voluntarily went back to Carthage to likely torture and death for two reasons. He had acted in line with his public duty in not arranging an exchange of prisoners (several young Carthaginian prisoners in return for himself), which he saw as disadvantageous to Rome. And he returned because he had sworn an oath to his enemies that, if he did not arrange this exchange of prisoners, he would go back to Carthage. The depictions by Cicero, and Horace (quoted at the end), bring out many of the key features of this ideal: Regulus’ act is presented as an expression of ‘magnanimity’ or courage; his single-minded commitment enables him to be free of emotions running counter to this ethical choice. He is thus ‘happy’, in a number of senses, on the rack of torture or in preparing to face torture.

It is worth thinking about other possible examples of this ideal: for instance, the modern example of Admiral James Stockdale who drew on the principles of the Stoic Epictetus (especially his distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’) to maintain his sense of integrity and resistance during repeated torture when a prisoner in the Vietnam war. There are also other possible Stoic-style modern examples, including Nelson Mandela in his long imprisonment in South Africa under the apartheid system, and the Indian political activist Gandhi, who endured voluntary starvation and other physical privations in his long and eventually successful opposition to British rule in India.

I think what these examples bring out is that the Stoic ideal, while initially seeming rather extreme and unrealistic, captures recognisable features of courageous response to extreme physical pain and hardship  and ones that are by no means confined to these examples of well-known male public heroism. We moderns too, I think, can make sense of the ideal of the wise person happy on the rack and can aspire to live this ideal out in our lives, if need be.

Regulus passages:

Entering the senate, he revealed his instructions … he claimed that it was not beneficial to restore the captives; they were young men and leaders while he was worn out by old age. His authority prevailed, and the captives were kept there. He himself returned to Carthage, held back neither by love for his country nor for his family and friends. Moreover, he knew well that he was going to a very cruel enemy and most sophisticated torture.

Cicero, On Duties, 1.100: Trans. Griffin and Atkins, 1991

It is said that he kept himself apart from the kisses of his faithful wife and small children as if he was no longer a citizen and sternly lowered his manly face to the ground. Then he swayed the senate, who were in doubt about what to do, offering his unparalleled advice [to send him back to Carthage], and in the midst of his sorrowing friends he hurried away, an exile of distinction. Even so he knew what the barbarian torturer was getting ready for him.

Horace, Odes 3.5.41-50. My trans

Relevant reading on Epicurus:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 21 (pleasure), 24 (death), and 15 (sensation, imagination, memory)
  • L. P. Gerson and B. Inwood, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, 1994).
  • J. Warren, Facing death: Epicurus and his critics (Oxford, 2004).
  • J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness. Oxford, 1993), ch. 16.
  • V. Tsouna, (2009) ‘Epicurean therapeutic strategies’, pp. 249-65 in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Ed. J. Warren (Cambridge, 2009). 

Relevant reading on the Stoic ideal: 

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 63 (the end and happiness), 65 (emotions), and 57 (on ethical development).
  • J. Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley 2006), ch. 5.
  • Cicero, Tusculan Disputations Book 5 (on ancient ideas about how to gain peace of mind, including Stoic and Epicurean ideas).
  • R. Sorabji, Gandhi and the Stoics (Oxford, 2012)
  • J. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, 1995). 
  • C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), ch. 2.

Katharine O’Reilly is lecturer in ancient philosophy at King’s College, London.

Chris Gill is emeritus professor of ancient thought at the University of Exeter.

Marcus to Malpractice to Montaigne by Mary Braun

A car crosses the midline and kills one of my patients. Perhaps it is the elderly diabetic who I’ve been telling for years to move to assisted living. I’m so sure she’s going to fall and break a hip, living at home alone at 95. I was wrong. I should have warned her against going grocery shopping. It might be the forty year old woman with the weight loss and stomach pain that we never could pin down. She was worried she would die a slow, painful death of pancreatic cancer, which is notoriously difficult to find until it’s quite large. Neither of us need worry. It seems she barely saw her actual death coming. Perhaps it was the mid-twenty year old who finally accepted treatment for his anxiety, the one who now had his first girlfriend, his first job, and would never see further firsts. He was so worried about side effects of the medication that he spent years in his parent’s basement, watching youtube. The med did not affect the other driver’s ability to stay awake. 

Thus, the lesson of memento mori (that one may be plucked from the living without warning at any moment) is daily presented to the primary care doctor. Patients come in with symptoms that I think will kill them that turn out to be minor ailments and no symptoms at all that turn out to be the first warning of their terminal diagnosis. 

Stoicism is rife with reminders of the shortness of life. Epictetus encourages us to remember how transient are those we love (From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there is saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’?” Discourses, 3.24, 88). Would my elderly diabetic have had a different phone conversation with her grandson on Friday afternoon if she knew she was going to die Saturday morning?

Marcus encouraged us to meditate frequently on our death (And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last Meditations 2.5). Marcus was encouraging himself to think about his death as a way to focus himself on what is important. If she realized that it would be be the last time she sat at her writing desk, my forty year old with belly pain may have been a little more focussed than if she thought she had an endless stream of mornings stretched out in front of her.

In letter 101, Seneca encourages Lucilius to focus on his death as a way to focus on what’s important and reduce his anxiety (Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind.) My poor, young anxious man may have enjoyed his life more if he had recognized its potential brevity.

The exercise of reminding myself how close at hand death is works well for me when I consider my personal life, but the result from a professional point of view is opposing. I find Stoicism helps to a point, and then reach to another of the Hellenistic philosophies, Pyrrhonism, for help with the rest.

Personally, when I imagine myself near to death, I am able to see what I really value. Providing high quality, individualized care to complicated, medically fragile people is such a thing. It’s important work, it is a job that suits my particular skills and there is a need for it now. I practice in a way that I am proud of. I treat my patients with dignity, encourage autonomy, independence, and help them make decisions that support their particular values, goals and preferences. I help patients get what they consider good outcomes. When I think about nearing death, the way I have taken care of my patients is one of the things I take comfort in personally.  For my personal goals, I would not change the way I practice if I knew I was near death.

Primary care offers opportunities for courage: I am often forced to tell people things they really don’t want to hear; equanimity: I can remain calm when these patients become angry; wisdom: I can respond wisely to these patients even when it would be easier to respond to their demands. I feel I’m up to the task most days and when I’m not, considering that this may be the last opportunity I have to interact with this particular patient, due to the fleeting nature of both of our lives (or possibly due to their insurance changing) does help me find wisdom I might otherwise not be able to. The memento mori practice helps.

When I consider my practice habits from a professional point of view, however, and recall that I am dying soon, I am tempted to practice differently. In particular, if I knew that I was going to die after a short retirement or, worse yet, in the saddle, I might concentrate on making what seemed to me to be  defensible decisions, rather than decisions that seem best for the particular patient in front of me.

They teach us in med school that the most common time for a doctor to be sued is in the three years after their death. The lawsuit doesn’t matter to the dead doctor, of course, because they’re dead, but it can massively inconvenience their families if their estate gets tied up in court.

They tell us that people who might have been on the fence about suing me while I was alive will sue me after I die. They might think my care was less than ideal, but like me so they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by suing me. Once I’m dead, however, I won’t have any feelings to hurt and they can feel free to sue me. 

Dead doctors are relatively easy marks because not only are we unable to defend ourselves from the grave, but the usual impediments to settling a case are removed. Being dead, I will not care about my reputation. Perhaps there are relevant details that died with me: my medical reasoning or delicate, personal revelations from the patient. I can’t be summoned to present this information. My kind personality will not help me here; the judge will never meet me. They will not be able to see how devoted I was to my patients or get a sense of how hard I tried to do what was best for them.

The lawyer will recommend that my estate settle especially if it’s not a large amount.

When I think about dying soon from this perspective, it makes me feel scattered and causes me to second guess every decision. I worry that each decision is not defensible and will lead to huge inconvenience for my family. 

If I get too far into second guessing, it hampers my ability to make good decisions in the present. Remembering that any of my patients (or even worse, their heirs after they die) may sue me at any moment for any reason distracts me from the important work at hand. The decision that is most defensible is not always the decision that is best for the patient and if I am maximizing my care for being defensible, I am not maximizing my care for my patients’ best interest. Practicing medicine in any way that is not in my patients’ best interest pricks my conscience. Am I acting wisely if I am prioritizing the minimization of my legal exposure down the road? My equanimity is seriously disturbed at this point. Consideration of the proximity of my death has encouraged less, not more, virtuous action, simply as a practical matter. 

Then I return to the personal view. When I consider the fact that I am dying and perhaps sooner than I might think, I want to feel like I’m using my time well. Why am I wasting my precious time being a doctor who practices like there is something more important than individualized, patient centered, exquisitely tailored care? I am distressed. Perhaps I had better retire now. How do I ever make any medical decisions? My worry can get out of control pretty quickly here and I can find myself concentrating on the effect of our medical decisions on me rather than their effects on the patient. Now, I have become the very opposite of the kind of doctor I want to be. 

Once again, Epictetus has some help to offer me: “some things are in our control and some things, not.” The next sentence points out that my actions are under my control. So far, so good. The next: other people’s actions are not under my control. Whether my patient chooses to sue my estate is not under my control. I can act in ways to decrease the chances of it, but if I fail at what I can control in an attempt to control something I cannot control, why exactly would I even be a doctor. 

There are things I can do now to minimize my risk of a future lawsuit, but after I am dead, I cannot control anything. Control of other people after I’m dead is what I’m trying to do. I cannot control other people while I am alive. I doubt I’ll be more effective when I’m dead! Research says that by providing my patients with careful care and making sure they feel heard, I can minimize my risk of lawsuits in the future. This might be considered as the “partially out of my control” arm of the trichotomy of control that Bill Irvine proposes. However, the decisions a patient’s family members might make after my patient’s death are completely out of my control. There is nothing I can do to develop a relationship with someone I have not met. 

To recap, at this point, I am concerned about an outcome that is only partially, if at all, under my control. The ways I can control my behavior to minimize the chances of this outcome are clear. Some of them are acceptable, or even laudable, such as working to develop a good relationship with my patients. Some of them are objectionable, such as ordering test I don’t really think the patient needs in order to protect myself from a potential lawsuit. I can consider how I will feel about my honor and professional judgment if I practice in this way and that helps restrain my actions, but sometimes it is not enough. I may still feel some temptation to practice unwisely.

I think about my death and its consequences for my daughter who is currently a college freshman. I imagine a lawsuit. If my estate were tied up in court, would she have to sit out until it was sorted out? What a disaster for her! This thought leads me away from practicing in the best interest of my patient again. 

Another Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, can come to my assistance here. Pyrrhonism asks me to consider what I really know. Do I really know it’s a bad thing for my daughter to have to wait a year or two out of college while my estate gets settled? Do I really know it would be a bad thing for her to have to support herself for a couple of years without the benefit of a college degree or my financial help? Judging the goodness or badness of things that have not come to pass seems quite foolish. 

Montaigne summarized this line of reasoning as a maxim: “What do I know?” In other words, perhaps a lawsuit and inability to pay her college tuition would be difficult for my daughter, but perhaps she would find a scholarship or perhaps she would do something else with the time that would provide her with a better life course. I can’t know ahead of time. I am considering acting today in a way that is against my professional vow of fiduciary beneficence in order to minimize the impact of an outcome that might or might not ever come to pass, which is out of my control and might not even be a bad thing. This seems foolish. 

Stoicism has helped me be a better doctor, but has uncovered, and only partially abated, other areas of anxiety. Pyrrhonism has helped out here. My patients, if they only knew, would thank the ancients for their contribution to their doctor’s equanimity.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.

The Stoic – November 2019

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

The theme of this issue is ‘Stoic Questions Answered’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

NOVEMBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Stoicism as a Way of Life
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. What Should You Seek? Courage To Face The World
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. What’s Your Job? Being a Good Person
  • KAI WHITING. What Should Be Your Concern? It’s Not All About Yourself.
  • SHARON LEBELL. What Steers Your Life? The Unseen Metaphors
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. How Should You Deal With Your Thoughts? Distance Yourself
  • FLORA BERNARD. What Is Success? Doing What Is Under Your Control

The Human Comedy: Lucian of Samosata, the View from Above, and Stoicism as a Way of Life by Matthew Sharpe

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re continue this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon, provided by Matthew Sharpe, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

When some years ago I told a close friend that I was interested in Stoicism, she responded with ancient concerns: that Stoicism is about having a “stiff upper lip”.  It has no sense either of the beauty or the comedy of life, turning its followers into emotionless human statues.  In this paper, I’d like to offer a response to my friend, and to the old charge that Stoicism is humorless, so practicing it as a way of life will make you joyless and dour.

 Things aren’t quite that simple.  The great Stoic Epictetus tells us expressly that we are not to become statues, but men and women with private and civic relationships and responsibilities.  And if you are anything like me, you will have found yourself laughing out loud, LOL, again and again as you read his Discourses and dealing out, deadpan, difficult ‘truth bombs’, as my students say.  Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind likewise stresses that “it is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it”.

 So what is the role of humor, at least humor of some types, in Stoicism as a way of life?  And, given that trying to become a Stoic really is a serious affair, what could be the ‘serious’ function of humor within a Stoic life?

In order to throw light on these questions, I want to explore the old link between Stoicism and its more ‘fractious’ cousin, ancient Cynicism.  From Zeno to Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus, Stoics always honored “the way of the dog” (for that is roughly what Cynicism means) as a “shorter”, in some senses more difficult way to virtue, and the two schools remained closely aligned, especially in ethics.  Yet, starting from Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Cynic, who used to beg before statues to practice patience, masturbate in public without shame, or walk around Athens’ streets with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man, one of the most patent features of Cynical philosophical practice is its openly comical dimension.

 So what I want to do today is look firstly at the work of a Cynic who may not be known to all of you, Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, to help us understand how humor could be invaluable in being a Stoic.  In Lucian’s comedies, we will see (1), many spiritual exercises used by the Stoics, led by the “view from above”, are given hilarious satirical presentations.  The comedy in Lucian’s staging of this spiritual exercise in particular, I will then show (2), helps us catch sight of the comic dimension in Stoicism, and the need for a sense of humor in the Stoic life.

1. Lucian and the view from above

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 CE) was trained first as a sculptor, next as a public speaker, before coming here to Athens around 165 CE, receiving a philosophical education, and beginning to write the works for which he remains famous. 

There is overwhelming evidence, including a sympathetic dialogue The Cynic, to support the idea that Lucian was philosophically a Cynic.  Like Diogenes and the Cynic Menippus whom Lucian makes his hero in several comedies, Lucian clearly took his public role to have been to fractiously ‘call out’ the idiotic pretentions of all of the pretenders of his time: from would-be oracles and magi, to orators, tyrants, climbers, and self-professing philosophers.  The Cynics were like ancient ‘situationists’ or ‘life hackers’, as we say in the internet age.  In this capacity, Lucian indeed did not hold back from attacking Stoicism itself in several key texts: notably his Symposium, in which philosophers of all schools are depicted brawling over the most petty things; and in his Lives for Sale, wherein the god Hermes shamelessly auctions off Chrysippus, Plato and other philosophers as commodities to the highest bidders.

Yet it is important to recognise from the start, if we are going to understand Lucian, why he satirises the Stoics and other philosophers of his day.  Because it is very relevant to our gathering here today.  Lucian’s charge is that Stoicism by the end of the 2nd century CE had become unrelated to life.  It had morphed into a kind of “scholastic” pursuit, preoccupied with recondite logical paradoxes like “the Reaper, the Owner—… the Electra and the Masked Man” or the fearsome “Indemonstrable syllogism” (Selected, 326, 328).  Yet, put simply, Lucian wonders how mastery of such subjects relates to wisdom or living the good life.  It is just as if he had already read his Pierre Hadot, or knew about Modern Stoicism.  As Lucian depicts Zeus lamenting in his Icaromenippus:

These ‘philosophers’ have divided themselves into bands, each dwelling in a separate word-maze of its own construction … Then they take to themselves the holy name of Virtue, and with uplifted brows and flowing beards exhibit [only a] deceitful semblance [of wisdom] that hides immoral lives.[1] 

This may sound familiar.

It is in this light that we need to understand the recourse within Lucian’s comical dialogues to spiritual exercises shared by the Stoics, like the view from above—he too is interested in the truly philosophical life.  As you will know, this exercise of the view from above involves imaginatively reviewing one’s life, and one’s concerns, as if from far above—from whence they appear quite differently, and as much less all-consuming, than we usually take them to be.  As Hadot discerned in Philosophy as a Way of Life, this exercise forms the central premise in not one but two of Lucian’s satires: first, the Icaromenippus, in which the Cynic Menippus constructs wings for himself like Icarus, and flies to the moon to discover the truth, after becoming completely disillusioned by the squabblings of competing philosophers; and second, Charon, or the Overseers, in which the god of the underworld, Charon, piles entire mountains on top of each other to look down upon the lives that human beings experience on earth, whose losses they so lament when they come down to Hades.

What reveals itself to Menippus in Icaromenippus is exactly the kind of disordered mélange that Marcus Aurelius’ use of the view from above reveals, for instance in Meditations IX, 30 and XII, 24: “adulteries, murders, treasons, robberies, perjuries, suspicions, and monstrous betrayals … Not to mention the multitude of burglars, litigants, usurers …; oh, it was a fine show!”  Seen from the moon, Greece itself measures about four inches.  The largest landholdings of the richest proprietors are no bigger than an Epicurean atom: hardly worth angsting, killing and dying for in great numbers.  As for human cities, as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius will echo in their versions of the view from above exercise:

you must often have seen a community of ants, some of them a seething mass, some going abroad, others coming back to town … At any rate, what men and cities suggested to me was just so many anthills …

In Charon, when the God of the underworld perches besides Hermes atop the twin peaks of Parnassus over Delphi, a different sequence of human follies unfolds itself beneath them.  Charon, unlike the world-weary Menippus, is wholly new to human affairs.  His naive astonishment, as he looks at our affairs for the first time, highlights how strange­—Stoics say ‘indifferent’many of the pursuits and values people ordinarily take for granted are—especially when viewed from the perspective of human mortality, in which trade Charon works.

First, the two gods make out the Olympic wrestling hero Milon at the height of his fame, blithely unaware how soon death will arrive, and “pin him to the mat without his even realising he was knocked off his feet.”  Next they eavesdrop on the ancient sage Solon’s famous exchange with the proud monarch Croesus’ pride in his legendary riches (so, after fame, money).  This exchange also affords Charon his first glimpse of gold, about which he has heard so much lamenting from the dead in Hades. But he just can’t see what all the fuss is about:

Ch. Oh, so that is gold, that glittering yellow stuff, with just a tinge of red in it. I have often heard of gold, but never saw it before …

Her. Ah, you do not know what it has to answer for; the wars and plots and robberies, the perjuries and murders; for this, men will endure slavery and imprisonment; for this they traffic and sail the seas.

Ch. For this stuff? … What fools men must be, to be enamoured of an object of this sallow complexion; and of such a weight!

Next, Hermes is able to reveal the futures of human beings puffed up with pride at their worldly power (so, after fame and riches, power) and see just how transient and fragile their careers are.  He has recently been chatting with Clotho, the Fate who weaves the invisible fabric of human destinies.  The great King Cyrus, hero of Xenophon, is as blithely unaware as Milon that Tomyris, a Russian girl, will soon murder him; just as the great happiness of Polycrates, ruler of Samos, will very soon end with his bloody death, effected by a lowly servant.  And so on.  “It’s so ridiculously funny,” Charon interjects: “Yet, at this very moment, who would dare to look them in the face?  Such an air of contempt they have for everyone else.”

Finally, the two gods’ preternatural vision reveals very fine, intertwined threads of fate attached to each persons’ heads: all equally fragile, and all able to be severed by death at any time.  “This is terribly funny, Hermes”, Charon repeats.  “You couldn’t possible describe how funny it is and do it all justice,” replies Hermes.  Especially when you consider—as he now directs Charon—just “how well supplied” death is “with messengers and agents” to do his work: “chills, fever, consumption, pneumonia, swords, bandits, hemlock juries, despots …” 

The result of the entire spectacle is that Charon feels moved to shout down to we mortals, like some heavenly Epictetus:

‘Fools,’ I might say, ‘why so much in earnest? Rest from your toils. You will not live for ever.  Nothing of the pomp of this world will endure; nor can any man take anything hence when he dies.  He will go naked out of the world, and his house and his lands and his gold will be another’s, and ever another’s.’[2]

2. Comedy, the view from the Acropolis, and Stoicism

There is a great difference in tone and perspective between a raucous Cynic like Lucian and the serenity of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.  The latter, we can feel, are close to attaining access to that “inner citadel” or akropolis Marcus describes in Meditations VIII, 48, as a high retreat into which the sage can retreat at a moment’s notice (see IV, 3).  The Cynics can seem, as it were, to be still roughing their way up the side of this acropolis, throwing down bolts of irritated invective at their fellows below, urging them to ‘wake up!’[3] 

Yet the view from above has deeply similar functions for both Cynics and Stoics.  The exercise serves to vividly remind us[4] that ‘externals’ like gold, riches, beauty, fame, and power are truly ‘indifferent’: unnecessary for, and unable to bring us lasting flourishing or serenity, since they properly don’t belong to us, but to Nature.  What Lucian’s stagings of this philosophical exercise in Icaromenippus and Charon make especially clear, however, is that there is something deeply comic about this view from above exercise—or rather, about what this exercise reveals about ordinary human affairs.  We can miss this dimension in Seneca’s or Marcus’ texts.  So, where is it?

Almost all philosophical theories of comedy have noted the role that the disjunction between two perspectives plays in the human sense of humor or the comic.    What we do when we practice the view from above is exactly cultivate a different, second perspective on what we usually take for granted.  This missed promotion, that person’s betrayal, the pettiness and mendacity of colleagues, whatever, can fill our minds, shock, preoccupy, or depress us.  When we adopt the second philosophical perspective in the view from above, though, we remember that such things are not exceptional, novel, unpredictable, and hence potentially traumatic.  They are laughably common, as old as humanity, so that no matter how capacious your historical perspective may be, as Marcus reminds himself:

You will see all these things: people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power (Meds. IV, 32; cf. VIII, 31; XI, 27; X1, 1).

Same ‘stuff’, different day.  Different actors, same scripts.

The comic side of this comes from the contrast between things as they truly are and the perspective of the agents themselves.  Since our particular experiences are ‘first for us’, each of us treats the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as if they were unprecedented, and we the most important player on the world’s stage.   As Hermes observes in Lucian’s Charon, what is so laughable about this is the “ignorance (agnoia) and deceit (apatê)”, including forms of self-deceit, that this usually involves.  Because of our usual failure to step back and see things steadily and whole, we:

look forward to having what they have forever, and so when death’s agents come calling to clap them in irons of fever or consumption and lead them away, they get angry at being hauled off because they never expected to be torn from the world. 

Likewise, as Epictetus will mock, we imagine that the famous, powerful or rich are truly important and happy, that our loved ones, unlike jugs—or even our household jugs—will last forever.  Then stuff happens.  So it goes. 

In a deeply interesting sequence in Charon, Lucian’s gods discern from above a “swarm” of spectral forms hovering around the little humans.  These are the pathê (passions): “hopes, fears, follies, pleasures, greeds, hates, grudges, and such like.”  It is above all our pathê, led by our hopes and fears, and each predicated on the “ignorant” overvaluation of externals, that render us unable to see things as they are, the Cynics agree with their Stoic comrades. 

Perhaps the most famously comic Stoic example of the disjunction between the physical realities of human life, and the enchanting aspects our passionate imaginingsadorn them with comes at Meditations VI, 13.  It is a matter of Marcus’ famous ‘disrobing’ of fine dining, as well as the sexual act:

How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods: ‘This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.’  … When it comes to sexual intercourse, we must say, ‘This is the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.’

‘What a come down!’, someone might exclaim in this age of celebrity chefs-come-orators: ‘who is this killjoy?’  And as for this description of erotic love: ‘way to kill the mood, man!?’  It is as if Marcus, for a minute, had channelled (across the seas of time) John Cleese’s teacher in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, boring his students silly by staging in grotesque details the unerotic mechanics of his own marital bed.

When Lucian in one dialogue defends his introduction of comedy into the elevated genre of the philosophical dialogue, his argument is that philosophers who imagine themselves as elevated sages wrestling with the highest mysteries often “cannot see the things that lie before [their own] feet.”  To enable philosophy and philosophers to again learn to see what is right before their eyes, Lucian explains—this is why he made Comedy the “yokefellow” of philosophy—in doing so also making his own dialogues attractive to many readers “who until then would as soon have thought of picking up a hedgehog as of venturing into the thorny presence of [philosophical] Dialogue.”

Following Lucian, I put it to you, the vital place, or places, for comedy in pursuing Stoicism as a way of life comes from how a sense of irony and humor helps us not to lose sight of what is right before our feet, even as we strive to become sages or sage-like.  The mundane, hard work of trying to make progress, especially when this daily grind is compared to the lofty flights of philosophical theory, could itself well be viewed as intrinsically comic.  It is after all surely a funny thing to do to get up every morning and remind yourself that you will be meeting angry, bitter, envious, jealous, plotting, scheming, dishonest, petty … people.  Likewise, reviewing your day, every evening, and confronting all of your own shortcomings will appear to many non-philosophers as a species of torture, or the patently bizarre. 

In any case, we can certainly imagine a comic poet having fun with these, and almost any Stoic spiritual exercises, like Lucian has fun with the view from above, and from the perspective of mortality.  But a sense of humour is also intrinsic to, and needed within, the practices themselves, or so I think Lucian helps us also to see.  To take on philosophy as a work of ascesis, personal spiritual training, can after all only really work if one remains lucidly self-aware about how wide the gap is between the philosophical ideal, that of being an apathic sage, and the realities of one’s own present conduct and make-up.  Of course, one can always be discouraged, lament, and get hung up on one’s failures to achieve the goal, when one is reminded of this gap: a kind of philosopher’s tragedy, with weeping and the covering of faces.  But here is where humour can intercede.  By giving way to despair, we are after all forgetting the deeply funny Stoic saying that a sage is as rare as a phoenix in Egypt, let alone in the modern ‘burbs.  For there never has been a phoenix in Egypt (spoiler alert), whereas imperfect people are everywhere, as the view from above vividly reminds us.

To make progress, says Marcus, is to be able to fortify one’s inner acropolis, the hegemonikon, against everything beyond one’s control.  But this includes one’s slips and failings.  These belong to the past, and must be at once owned up to, and worked through. 

The ability to see oneself as an imperfect student doing their best, not a hopelessly failed sage, and so to laugh at one’s own shortcomings, is surely essential if one is not to lose one’s faith in the entire project.  Such humbling laughter, as if looking down on oneself from above like a Menippus, Charon, or Marcus Aurelius, is also necessary if one is ever to forgive oneself and others for their vices and imperfections: something which is absolutely vital if we are to move onwards and upwards. 

For it is true, as the great Voltaire scholar Charles Kors once observed, that one never quite looks at things the same way, once one has seen them as comic.  This is surely the insight that lies behind Seneca’s bon mot that no one who can laugh at themselves can be truly laughable.  By contrast, those who cannot laugh at themselves—and at the mundane undersides of all our loftier pretentions—are frequently laughable, when they are not dangerous.  We should beware of philosophers, politicians, even Presidents—why not?—who only know how to laugh at everyone else, for (to parody a biblical saying) ‘they should merit our mirth’.

So, to close at the start: pursuing Stoicism is amongst the most serious thing you can do, if the ancient sense of philosophy as a way of life is at issue.  But we should not confuse being serious with taking ourselves too seriously, lest we become censorious (and a bore) to others and closed to the possibility of real transformation ourselves.  As Seneca reflects in On Tranquillity of Mind:

We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.


[1]  Indeed, he will mock even the famous Stoic paradoxes concerning the Sage as the “only one in the world who’s wise, good, just, brave, the only king, rich man …”: “then he’s the only cook.  And, damn it all, the only tanner, carpenter, and so on,” responds Chrysippus’ bemused prospective buyer (Selected, 325).  In any case, a good man to have around the place.

[2] Human lives, he concludes, are like the bubbles that rise up to the surface in springs, some growing quite large, others disappearing immediately, all dissipating before too long: “for everyone the bubble of life must burst.”

[3] Lucian’s Fisherman will thus end with pseudo-philosophers, hauled up to the Athenian Acropolis on fishing lines hooked with gold, being comically cast down the great rock’s side by the true philosophers as the unworthy pretenders who they are. 

[4] Whose representatives Lucian positions as fighting side by side in the comedic eris or mythomachy between the philosophers in his Symposium.  They are fighting the Peripatetics and Epicureans, with the Platonic philosopher in the middle.

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).