Stoic Week 2019 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2019 took place in October. We hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles exploring what we can learn from all the questionnaires many of you filled in for this year’s Stoic Week (Thank you!).  Today we will look at who took part. It’s the type of information journalists often ask, so it’s written in the form of Q & A, with the statistics relegated to tables at the end of the article.

Q:  How many people took part this year?

A:  1744 people completed the questionnaires. At least 4000 people started the questions, but  it does take about 20 minutes to complete and how could we expect people to have the virtues of patience persistence before doing Stoic week.

Q:  That’s quite a lot of people . If you don’t mind me pointing this out, this is half the number taking part last year. Do you think Stoicism is running out of steam?

A: Absolutely not. The number of attendees at Stoicons, and the plethora of Stoic blogs and books suggests quite the reverse. It could be that people being interested in Stoicism now have other ways of finding out about it that they didn’t have in 2012 when the first Stoic Week took place.  It’s also true that many thousands have already taken part in Stoic Week and can access the materials whenever they like, so do not have to register again (though, we do change the materials every year, so I would suggest it is still worthwhile).  The most simple and likely explanation for reduced numbers though is that because the organisers were so busy they didn’t spend quite so much time to promoting Stoic Week this time around. So perhaps that’s a lesson for next year for all of us.

Q:  In previous years more men have taken part than women. This bucks the general pattern for personal development courses where women usually outnumber men. Is this still the case?

A: This year 60%  of participants were men and 39% women. That’s slightly more equal than last year but there is still plenty of  room for improvement  (Table 1 at the end of the article gives the full figures). You can look at this inequality in two ways. You might say that since men are in general relatively less skilful at finding resources to help with personal development, it’s great that so many find Stoicism congenial. Whilst this is true,  I  worry that many woman might  think that Stoicism is a predominantly male philosophy  and so is not for them.

I would  encourage everyone, regardless of gender, to explore Stoicism, and refer sceptics to Massimo Pigluicci’s argument  that “broicism”  is not Stoicism. To quote Massimo, “the goal of Stoicism is not to become manly (vir), but rather to excel as a human being (arête).”

Q: How old is the average Stoic Week participant?

A: Probably about 40 years of age. Participation peaks in the 36-45 age group. Over 7% of participants are over 65 which is more than you would expect if the distribution was  random

Q: Does your data support the often-touted view that you get wiser as you get older?

A:  Actually it does, as long as you see the level of Stoicism as implying wisdom! Participants’ level of Stoicism (as measured by the SABS questionnaire) increases steadily with age, and the over-65s are a bit more Stoic (2%) than the 55-65 age group. See table 2  at the end of the article for the full details.

Q: I expect most participants are from the USA, UK and Canada still?

A: Yes, that’s still the case, comprising 39%, 19% and 9% of participants respectively.  77% of all participants come from those three countries -see table 3.

Q: And are they the most Stoic in that they have the highest SABS scores?

A: No. that honour goes to Ireland, then Poland then Spain. It would be interesting to know why this is the case – the sample sizes are small (15, 10 and 19) so it could be that the people taking part just happened to be hardened Stoics.

Q:  Which are the most Stoic of the countries with a large number of participants?

A: Americans seem to be a bit more Stoic than the French, British and Canadians, but there isn’t too much in it. Table 4 gives the full details.

Q: Are most people who take part in Stoic Week newbies?

A: Yes, 69% of people are taking part the first time.

Q: You said earlier that it is worth people doing Stoic Week more than once. Can you tell me whether people have done Stoic week a number of times become more Stoic (as indicated by higher SABS scores than those who have taken part  less often).

A: Yes indeed, the degree of Stoicism increases the more times people do Stoic Week – see table 5 for the detailed statistics.

Q: I would guess that most people who do Stoic Week don’t know much about Stoicism to start with?

A: Interestingly, it’s fairly even split between those who know a fair bit and those who know very little about Stoicism – see table 6. What will be interesting will be to see how much people know about Stoicism by the end of Stoic Week, which we will discover in a later report.

Q: Are most participants already Stoic?

A: Again, it’s fairly close between those who identify as Stoic (or more Stoic than not) and those who don’t think of themselves as being very Stoic at all -see table 7. Again, it will be fascinating to see how this changes after Stoic Week.

Q: Why did people take part in Stoic week?

A: To learn about how to practice Stoicism in their life – at least that’s my interpretation of this WordCloud :-

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics: Facts and Figures

Gender 2019 Average SABS 5.0 score   2019
% of participants
2018
% of participants
2017
% of participants
2016
% of participants
Male 302 60 62 65 66
Female 298 39 37 34 33
Decline to state 283 .75 1 1 1
Other 312 .6 1 0.5

Table 1: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS Score by Gender  (Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Age Average SABS score 2019 2019 % of participants 2018 % of participants 2017 % of participants 2016 % of participants
Over 65 316 7 7         –
56-65 310 15 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55)
46-55 305 19 20 18 17
36-45 298 23 22 22 21
26-35 296 20 23 27 25
18-25 288 15 13 15 22
Under 18 289 1 1 1 1

Table 2: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS score by Age 

Country No. of Participants %
United States 669 39
United Kingdom 336 19
Canada 157 9
Australia 68 4
Germany 45 3
Netherlands 44 3
Sweden 22 1
France 21 1
New Zealand 20 1
Norway 19 1
Spain 19 1
Brazil 18 1
Ireland 15 1
South Africa 15 1
Russian Federation 13 1
Italy 12 1
India 10 1
Poland 10 1

Table 3: Stoic week 2019 Number of Participants and % of total for all countries with 10 or more participants- 

Country Degree of Stoicism (average SABS score)
Ireland 321
Poland 310
Spain 307
United States 304
France 303
South Africa 302
Netherlands 301
Brazil 300
Australia 298
United Kingdom 297
Canada 297
Sweden 293
Germany 292
Norway 291
Italy 289
New Zealand 285
India 269
Russian Federation 268

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2019 Most Stoic countries (only including countries with 10 or more participants)

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Average SABS score (degree of Stoicism)   2019 % of total participants 2018 % of total participants   2017 % of total participants 2016 % of total participants
4 or more 339 4 2 1 1
3 320 5 3 2 3
2 314 8 6 5 6
1 308 16 17 13 14
0 293 68 73 79 77

Table 5: 2019 Stoic Week – Number of times participants have taken part in previous Stoic Weeks and – SABS scores and percentages of total participants

Knowledge of Stoicism 2019 % 2018 % 2017 % 2016   %
Expert .8 .8 0.5 1
I know quite a bit but not an expert 23 19 19 16
I know a bit 41 42 41 39
Novice 25 28 30 33
None 9.5 10 9 11

Table 6:  2019 Stoic Week  – Self-assessed Knowledge of Stoicism at the beginning of the week

Identification as a Stoic 2019 % 2018 %
I consider myself to be a Stoic   10.5 11
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 41 38
Neutral or I don’t know 34 37
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 9 10
Definitely not a Stoic 6 6

 Table 7:  Stoic Week 2019 :  Participants identification as a Stoic at the beginning of Stoic Week

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

This post is based on the workshop on this subject given at the Athens Stoicon (Oct 5 2019). Chris Gill provides the introduction and the section on the Stoics and Gabriele Galluzzo provides the section on Aristotle. This presentation was followed by a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

Introduction

The environmental crisis represents the biggest challenge to humanity today – perhaps ever. There are many practical responses being made as well as strong resistance to these responses. Theorists, including philosophers, are also working out how they can help: environmental ethics is an area of current intense activity. In this workshop, we are thinking about the intellectual and ethical resources in ancient philosophy that may help thoughtful people to respond appropriately to the scale of this challenge, looking to Aristotle, the famous 4th-century philosopher and pupil of Plato, and the Stoics (early third-century BC onwards) – both of whom founded their schools in the city of Athens where this year’s Stoicon was held.

These ancient philosophers did not, of course, experience the environmental crisis that we have produced in modern times; but their ideas may still help us deal with it. We do not have to adopt all their ideas, and some of what they say may be unhelpful for this purpose; but their standpoint may still offer us new insights. Here, we are not looking at these thinkers primarily as a source of emotional resilience (Stoicism is often seen as helping to support resilience in times of crisis) or as sources of ideas about the virtues, though that is an aspect of their theory that is potentially relevant to this topic. It is especially their thinking about nature and the linkage between nature and ethics that we are most concerned with here.

We want to see if there are dimensions of their view of humanity and nature or nature and ethics that we can adopt and use as the basis for modern thinking in a way that can help us respond positively and usefully to the environmental crisis.

Aristotle and the Environment

Traditionally, Aristotle is not often associated with environmental ethics. What seems to militate against the inclusion of Aristotle in the list of environmental thinkers is his insistence on the primacy of human beings over all other creatures (both living and non-living creatures). This view, which is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, is certainly testified to by a famous passage in Aristotle’s Politics:

We may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of human beings, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of human beings.

Politics, 1.8

Although Aristotle certainly held this anthropocentric view, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In general, it seems wrong to claim that anthropocentrism is incompatible with a genuine concern for the environment as a whole or for forms of life other than the human. It is often claimed, for instance, that we have a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. And this responsibility entails that we should preserve our planet in the same condition as we found it, if not in a better condition.

This argument in favour of caring for the environment, which seems to be right, entirely revolves around human beings, their moral obligations and their interest (the interest, for instance, of future generations). Thus, to hold that human beings are in some way or other superior to other creatures by no means entails that we should not care for them or for the environment.

Actually, on closer inspection, we can see that there are several strands in Aristotle’s thought that could be used to support a concern for the environment and forms of life other than the human. The Politics passage might be taken to imply that animals and plants do not have any intrinsic value, but only have instrumental value to the extent that they serve the interests of human beings. But this is certainly not Aristotle’s considered view. Scholars have emphasised that there are clear traces in Aristotle of a biocentric or life-centred approach, in which the central idea is that life (all forms of life, not just human life) has intrinsic value.

This approach mostly emerges in Aristotle’s physical and biological works, which are devoted to a comprehensive study of all forms of life on earth. One area of interest is the way that Aristotle understands the nature and development of living beings. Aristotle has a conception of the nature and development of living beings (and, in some sense, of the universe as a whole), which is called ‘teleology’. This is the idea that, by nature, all creatures have an end or goal to realise, which is the development and full realisation of their own nature.

Thus, all plants, as well as non-human animals and human beings, tend or strive by nature to become fully developed and well-functioning creatures. The activities that lead all creatures to develop into fully functioning beings are good; and the attainment of their nature is their goodness and excellence. As the application of categories such as goodness shows, non-human living beings are valuable, precisely because they tend and strive to achieve their own goodness. In this way, they are not only instrumental to human beings but have intrinsic value. They cannot be, therefore, ethically irrelevant.

This general line of argument can be further strengthened by looking at Aristotle’s approach to life more generally. Aristotle has a holistic approach to life and to the universe in general. When he studies the different forms of life, Aristotle considers them all together and emphasises what the different forms of life have in common (De anima, 2.1-4).

With plants, for instance, we share the capacity to take food, reproduce and interact with the environment. With non-human animals, we share, in addition to the basic capacities we share with plants, the capacity to perceive the world, to have desires and to move around to get the objects of our desires. Obviously, for Aristotle human beings have more capacities than other creatures (such as the capacity to think and speak, which implies many other ethically relevant capacities) and so they occupy the top place in the scale of nature. But the different forms of life have at least as many elements of continuity as they have of discontinuity.

Thus, Aristotle’s universe appears to constitute a system and organisation, in which the different inhabitants are necessarily interconnected and there are no radical breaks between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Metaphysics, 12.10). If this is the case, we can see how, in an Aristotelian universe, what happens in one part, layer or level of the world is relevant to, and affects, to some extent, what happens in the other parts, layers or levels. This holistic or interconnected approach invites us to think seriously about a certain number of environmental issues, such as the preservation of plant and animal species, as well as the preservation of the habitat that makes life possible.

It is not only in Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific approach to life that we may find inspiration to place concern for nature and the environment at the centre of our ethical and political agenda. Several aspects of Aristotle’s ethical thought invite similar conclusions. Here, clearly, the perspective is quite different from the biological works; and anthropocentric considerations play a significant role in this area of Aristotle’s thought. It is clearly our happiness as human beings that is at stake in Aristotle’s ethics and the way we make use of the resources that we have. But Aristotle’s approach to these issues shows how anthropocentrism and environmental responsibility are not necessarily incompatible. A couple of examples may illustrate this general point.

Aristotle is a eudaimonist: he believes, in other words, that happiness or flourishing is the goal of human life. He also believes that happiness or flourishing mainly consists in the possession and exercise of the virtues. Human beings are happy when they perform the activities that fully express their nature, and these are, for Aristotle, virtuous actions, both practical and intellectual. One of the distinguishing marks of Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics is the insistence on virtues that relate strongly to the (modern) idea of sustainability. For instance, Aristotle believes that an amount of money is necessary for a good life, as money removes obstacles to happiness and provides security (Nicomachean Ethics, NE, 1.8, 4.1). But Aristotle strongly insists that it is only some money (and not as much money as possible) that we need to be happy (NE, 3.7-9, 4.1):

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, insofar as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.

Politics, 1.8

Thus, some is enough, and self-restraint in material pursuit is at centre of Aristotle’s ethical thinking. And it is this notion of ‘enoughness’, as it were, that shapes Aristotle’s ethical approach as a whole. Thus, if we consider the problem of exploitation of the planet’s resources, an Aristotelian approach would certain encourage a sustainable use of such resources and strongly discourage consuming more than is actually needed. Some resources are necessary for collective or social happiness, but an increase in resources does not correspond for Aristotle to an increase in collective happiness. It follows that we can be equally happy, and arguably even happier, by using fewer resources than we do now or by using them in a sustainable way.

Aristotle’s ethical thinking offers a second, interesting line of argument to the same conclusion. This is not a point that Aristotle explicitly makes, but it seems to follow quite naturally from his general position. Aristotle argues that the happiness of a human being must be assessed on the basis of his or her life as a whole (NE, 1.7). It is not a short or long period of time that enables someone to be called happy, but their life as a whole. In the same context, Aristotle raises the apparently weird question whether someone’s happiness may be affected by what happens after his or her death (NE, 1.10). Aristotle’s answer to the question is open-ended, but it is still interesting that he raises the question at all.

The kind of situation that Aristotle has in mind is probably this. We have a moral responsibility to educate our children well because this is part of what it means to exercise our virtue. Suppose that we fail and our children misbehave after our death, this may have consequences for our happiness because, of course, if we fail in that crucial task, we cannot be said to have lived a good life.

Now, let’s suppose that, by analogy with Aristotle’s thought, we have a similar obligation to care about future generations, and that preserving the planet in a good condition is part of this care. It follows that, if we fail to preserve the environment in a good condition for future generations, we fail in our moral obligation, and this may have consequences for the extent to which we can be said to have led a good life and thus to have been happy. In this line of argument, preserving the environment is a component of what makes us flourish as human beings and so, ultimately, of our happiness. In all these ways, then, Aristotle’s thought can provide insights that we may be able to adopt and that may help us to adopt a more sustainable way of life and set of attitudes.

Stoicism and the Environment

As with Aristotle, there are some aspects of  Stoic thinking that are not helpful to us in our present situation, including the idea that Gabriele singled out at the start of his talk: the belief that other animals, as well as plants, exist for humans to use for our purposes. This attitude (we usually call it an ‘anthropocentric’ attitude) has come today to form part of the problem that we are trying to address. However, more closely examined, the Stoic viewpoint is not so much ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on human beings as a species) but ‘logo-centric’ or ‘reason-centred. Human beings are regarded by the Stoics as especially valuable in relation to other animals because of the possession of rationality, which is also shared with the universe as a whole. This is a rather complex idea whose implications I will explore in the course of my talk and which, I think, is potentially valuable for us too.

What are the Stoic ideas that are most helpful to us in confronting the environmental crisis? One idea centres on the place of human beings in nature and the ethical implications of this place. Modern moral theories tend to be framed in terms of relationships between human beings, and are then extended (sometimes) to animals or the environment, Stoicism sees human beings as an integral part of the universe as a whole and sometimes defines the best kind of life in terms of the universe or nature as a whole.

Happiness or the best kind of life is defined, typically, as the natural life, or the life according to nature; and this means, in part, that the best kind of life is one which exhibits qualities which are also present in the universe as a whole, namely rationality or order and providential care for ourselves and others. Aristotle also sees the happy life as one that is ‘according to nature’, but he mainly stresses the idea of living according to human nature (Aristotle, NE,1.7), whereas the Stoics go further in linking human happiness with nature as a whole. In this respect, the Stoic standpoint is not, in fact, anthropocentric: for them, the universe as a whole exhibits more fully qualities that we possess to a lesser extent. This viewpoint may help to counteract the modern tendency to see human beings as in some sense separate from nature or as uniquely valuable elements within it.

Secondly, the Stoic standpoint offers a distinctive way of formulating the idea that nature is inherently or intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable to us (humans). Some modern thinkers in environmental ethics also stress the importance of this idea as a corrective to modern anthropocentrism; but the Stoics provide their own way of framing and grounding this idea. The Stoics see nature not as ethically neutral, not as just a material object or a process; they see it as embodying in a strong form good qualities which human beings can also share, though less completely.

These good qualities are two-fold; the first is rationality, which the Stoics interpret in terms of structure, order and wholeness or, overall, consistency. Secondly, according to the Stoics, nature is good because it exercises providential care, not just for human beings and other animals, but also plants, and sea and air, all of which contribute to the totality of the universe (its order or rationality) and are to that extent good.

Nature’s providential care is expressed, for instance, in the fact that all animals are naturally motivated to take care of themselves (to preserve themselves) and to take care of others of their kind (their offspring, most obviously). In human beings, this motive of care for oneself and others goes much further than with other animals because of our distinctive rationality. So this is another way in which Stoic ideas can be useful to us now: in offering new ways in which we can see nature as a whole as inherently valuable (what is sometimes described as a ‘biocentric’ viewpoint) and not valuable only because nature is useful to us humans.

Also, I think the Stoic framework can be helpful in leading us to make the kind of response in action that is called for by the environmental crisis, and to conceive this response in a positive way.  The Stoics think human beings (like other animals) have an in-built instinct to take care of themselves and others of our kind. Because of our distinctive capacity for rationality this takes a complex form, that of developing the virtues, in a way that benefits ourselves as well as those affected by our actions.

The second aspect, developing our care for others, takes two main forms: involvement in family and communal life (including political life); and also coming to see all human beings as part of a single community or family as rational and sociable animals. I think that this Stoic idea can be especially helpful for us as we try to take action that addresses the environmental crisis. We need to view our actions not just as they affect our own family and community or even nation but as they affect humanity as a whole, seen as part of our broader family of humankind or as ‘citizens of the world’ (cosmopolitans). This can help us to adopt an attitude of care for people in other parts of the world who are already experiencing more than some of us the destructive results of climate change.

I see one further possible argument, which is based on Stoic ideas, even if it is not one the Stoics themselves put forward. One could argue that the rationality that makes humans special among animals carries with it the obligation to use this capacity not just for our own benefit or for our families and community or humanity in general but also on behalf of other aspects of nature which lack this capacity, that is, other animals, plants and the natural environment more generally. Put differently, we should use our special capacity to adopt, as far as we are able, the role of providential nature in taking care of these other elements. We should do so, especially, in the light of the damage that we have ourselves already done to the world. This line of thought is not, as I say, one the Stoics adopted but it is based on Stoic themes and represents another way in which their theory can be valuable for us in forming an appropriate ethical and intellectual response to the environmental crisis.

Further readings on Aristotle:

Further readings on Stoicism:

For the Stoic worldview, see Cicero, The Nature of the Gods Book 2.

For all aspects of the topic, see:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, especially sections 54 (theology), 57 (development), 63 (the end and happiness)
  • John Sellars, Stoicism, ch. 5 (Stoic Ethics).

See also:

  • C. Gill, ‘Stoicism and the Environment’
  • K. Whiting, ‘Stoicism and Sustainability’, Stoicism Today
  • S. Shogry, ‘Stoic cosmopolitanism and environmental ethics’, forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter

Amor Fati by Walter Matweychuk

Using Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I teach people that we disturb ourselves when we encounter adversity. REBT heavily borrows from a 2000-year-old philosophy known as Stoicism. Many people misunderstand Stoicism and wrongly believe it means to be emotionless. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that helps people live well in a challenging world and to engage with that world to better it if they can.

Currently, there is a great deal of interest around the globe in Stoicism. Since REBT derives from Stoicism, many of the Stoic teachings can be implemented using REBT. REBT and Stoicism go together, and in many ways, REBT is a modern version of Stoicism. The Stoics taught that one could flourish in life when they lived according to nature. To do this means to live a life where you pursue the four virtues of Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Proper Reasoning (also called Practical Wisdom).

Stoicism also advocated that we live happily with our fate expressed in the phrase Amor Fati, to learn to love one’s fate. “Amor Fati” does not mean one does not acknowledge their dissatisfaction with a set of circumstances. Loving one’s fate also does not necessarily mean to give up in resignation and avoid making those changes that are possible in the situation one finds themselves confronting. I believe that the Stoics, who were practical philosophers, would encourage us to change what we can and to live happily with what we cannot eliminate from our lives and thereby achieve Amor Fati.

REBT actively and explicitly teaches you how to follow this ancient piece of wisdom. In REBT, we assume that we can have some degree of happiness even when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards our difficulties and obstructions. REBT teaches that humans tend to disturb themselves and thereby render themselves unable to “love their fate” when we hold one or more of the following attitudes towards the adverse events of our life:

  1. I absolutely must do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and must never err.
  2. You, my fellow human, absolutely must treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuits as my well-being is what is supreme
    .
  3. Life absolutely must unfold as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. It absolutely must only be as complicated and challenging as I want it to be.

Each of the above attitudes is rigid, illogical, false, and self-defeating. Holding these attitudes will not allow you to have some degree of happiness as you encounter the adversities fate chooses to put in your way.

To help people learn to help themselves and thereby achieve Amor Fati, I teach them to question these attitudes and to revise them. Ellis called this process “disputing” because he wished to emphasize the critical analysis he was teaching and aiming at the self-disturbing attitudes the individual held. This process of critical examination of one’s reactions and underlying attitudes is not unlike what the ancient Stoics prescribed. The Stoics prescribed daily reflection in the morning and the evening, which can be called Stoic meditation. During such meditative and reflective practice periods, both the Stoics and REBT advocate that one becomes aware of the self-defeating nature of their emotional and behavioral reactions.

When we identify an instance of self-disturbance inconsistent with “Amor Fati,” REBT suggests that we search for the rigid “musts” that we hold and which creates our disturbed, self-defeating reactions. The Stoics advocated something similar when they promoted the use of proper reasoning. Once these rigid, self-defeating “musts” are acknowledged, they can be critically analyzed. Next the individual can attempt to rework them and transform them from an idea that is rigid and self-defeating to one that is flexible and self-helping while still possessing the wish or value embedded in the attitude.

The process of disputing your rigid musts involves asking questions like:

  1. Is this attitude helping me get more of what I want in this world and less of what I do not wish to get? How does it help me function in the face of adversity?
  2. Is this attitude true or false? Does this attitude have evidence that reveals it is true? What is that evidence?
  3. Is this attitude internally consistent and logical? Does the conclusion logically follow from any inherent assumptions with it?

When one uses these three questions against the rigid and absolute “musts” placed on one’s self, others, and their world or life conditions, it becomes clear that there are problems with this way of thinking. Absolute “musts” do not help us function in a maximally effective way in the face of adversity. A review of the available evidence will quickly show these attitudes are false, and they tend to be internally inconsistent and not logical.

Let’s take a look at three alternative attitudes that are functional, true, and internally consistent and logical. A period of Stoic meditation or REBT disputing would show that these attitudes are suitable alternatives to the three rigid musts. They are:

  1. I want to do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and to avoid making errors but cannot do this and do not have to do this. As a fallible human, I cannot perfect myself, but I can strive to do better and better. Better is achievable, and perfection is not.
  2. I certainly would like you, my fellow human, to treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuit because my well-being is of great importance to me, but I do acknowledge you do not have to do this. I recognize I am the center of my universe, not the universe. When you treat me poorly, I will note this and assert myself, but I will refuse to demand that you be as I want you to be because you do not have to be so. I will remain responsible for my emotional reaction to your misbehavior and refuse to condemn you, the fallible human who is liable for your misconduct towards me.
  3. I will keep my wish that my life unfolds as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. I also will continue to hope that my life is only as complicated and challenging as I want it to be, but I will always keep in mind that these conditions do not have to exist. Life and reality are as they are, and it is in my best interest to accept them as they are until I can influence them to my liking if I can. When I cannot change the conditions of my life I still can have some degree of happiness despite the deviation from my ideal conditions. In so doing, I will come closer to the Stoic goal of “Amor Fati.”

Both the Stoics and REBT acknowledge that disciplining our thinking takes practice. That is why the Stoics advocated one engage in a period of reflective preparation in the morning and a period of evening mediation to review what one did well and poorly earlier in the day. The famous Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, who was a practicing Stoic, reminded himself each morning that he would encounter all sorts of misbehavior as shown in the passage below taken from his diary:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

An updated version of this morning meditation could be something along these lines:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today do not have to be as I want them to be. They do not have to cooperate with me and treat me nicely. The never have to show me respect even though I will always welcome it. Others today will treat me poorly because they all are fallible humans just like me. They are not evil but may very well be emotionally disturbed.

I will first assume responsibility for my emotional and behavioral reaction to their conduct, and then when it is sufficiently important to me to do so, I will assert myself with them and sometimes even resist them in ways that are fair, humane, and law-abiding. 

People and life cannot disturb me. It is I who has the power and choice to disturb myself over what others do and the adversities I encounter each day. I will choose never to disturb myself regardless of what happens later today. I will strive to unconditionally accept myself when I error, unconditionally accept others when they misbehave, and unconditionally accept life when it is rough and unfair. I am responsible for my emotions, my conduct, and my life. I will always look for changing what I can change, which is my attitude towards both my mistakes and the obstructions others and life put in my way.

I will experience healthy negative feelings that motivate me to act in a socially acceptable way that helps me to put my interests first and the interests of others a close, not a distant second. In having this stance today, I will be better able to enjoy my life to the fullest as it is the only life I will likely ever have to experience. Amor fati.”

Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.

What Is a Stoic’s “Social Nature” by Will Johncock

We Are Naturally Social

I originally encountered Stoic philosophy many years ago when majoring in philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate. That I was studying sociology during this period is not irrelevant to my first experiences with Stoicism. This is because what initially caught my attention about the ancient Stoics was their emphasis on our inherently social or communal constitution. I rather hastily registered this principle as similar to modern sociological arguments about how we are each intrinsically shaped by our social environments.

As my familiarity with Stoicism developed over the ensuing weeks I soon realized how wrong this first impression was! Instead I came to grasp the significant differences between the Stoic sense of our essential social nature, and modern claims about how we are contingently constructed by the norms and structures of the societies into which we are born. In the spirit of this refined appreciation, I anticipate that clarifying in this discussion what our social nature means for the Stoics could assist others.

Stoicism’s emphasis on our social or communal predispositions does not inaugurate ancient concerns about social and political life. Turning to Plato’s Symposium as just one example we see that Socrates and the other interlocutors readily explore themes of civic virtue and values. I indeed would argue that the dialogic method via which Socrates generally explores philosophical questions necessarily has interpersonal and social conditions.

It is not uncommon in fact for Plato to describe, sometimes by analogy, individual states in terms of collective states. Take for instance his definition of happiness in the Republic. Individual happiness for Plato comprises the harmonious application of the soul’s various parts/faculties in a way that mirrors an idealized division of functions between classes or groups in a population. Then of course we have a work such as Aristotle’s Politics which considers how a political community relates to the fulfilment of citizens’ natural and virtuous ends.

This inadequately brief summary simply serves to recognize that pre-Stoic thought is rich with inquiries about collective life. Despite this ancient heritage, the Stoics nevertheless uniquely express something essential about our social or communal natures. As noted, this essential social quality will be distinguishable from modern ideas around how we are contextually socialized by the various communities in which we live.

The first point to make regarding our social nature for the Stoics is their belief that we are inherently designed for communal or collective existence. If we begin at ancient Stoicism’s Roman conclusion we find that Marcus Aurelius states plainly in Meditations that when we do “something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest” we have actioned what each of us “was designed for” (9.42,4). Elsewhere he describes this specifically with the term “nature” in that it is in our “nature to perform social acts” (8.12).

The influence of Epictetus is evident here. In his Discourses Epictetus proclaims that God’s design is of humans who “contribute something to the common interest” (1.19,10-19). The message is that our actions invoke a nature that looks beyond our own welfare or priorities to also consider our fellow humans. Because our nature reflects how we are “made in the interest of another” Marcus further grandly declares that we are “born for community” (5.16).

This theme of the welfares of ourselves and others becomes especially prominent when considering our inclinations toward self-preservation. Cicero in his De Officiis (On Duties) recounts how the Stoic follower, Cato the Younger, describes an individual’s self-preserving tendencies as  “identical” to what serves “the whole body politic” (3.6,26). The Stoic assertion is that such self-awareness is not exclusively an individualized prerogative but actually reflects how everyone is “bound to their fellow citizens” (3.6,28).

This is genuinely counterintuitive and requires more explanation. How can our self-preserving tendencies, our looking out for ourselves, reveal an underlying fellowship? A clue presents in Cato’s description of the “bond of mutual aid” (3.19,63). What we learn is that if it is in our human nature to care for another person’s welfare, likewise it is in their human nature to care for ours. Through this reciprocity a communal preservation of the self manifests.

We need to be careful with this sense of self-preservation though. For the Stoics self-preservation does not strictly refer to typical understandings around sustaining physical health and well-being. To self-preserve for the Stoics instead signifies living in accordance with nature. While that nature concerns our communal orientations as we have reviewed, what we are about to see is that such a nature also requires living rationally. It is through this intersection of community and rationality that the Stoic conception of our essentially social nature will diverge from modern impressions of the varied and contingent productions of our socialized selves and states by the societies in which we respectively live.

What Happens Socially Happens Externally

Our nature involves a communal and social existence for the Stoics. Nevertheless the contingent happenings of social life and our consequent socialization by those happenings also comprise much of what is outside our nature in their view. To appreciate this difference we can begin with Epictetus’ well-known distinction in the Enchiridion between what is, versus is not, in our control.

What is in our control for the Stoics is in our nature. Our attitudes and judgements are “within our control” and accordingly are internal to our nature. Such processes depend only on ourselves and so are internal to us. Conversely external features such as our body, our possessions, and socialized phenomena like our reputation are outside our control. Because our body changes, our possessions can be stolen, and we might be undeservedly spoken badly of by others, we have no control over these things. They are therefore outside our nature (1).

Epictetus even advises in the Discourses that if you “enter into social relations” with people who like to “gossip about shared acquaintances” you are vulnerable to harm. The harm eventuates if you become invested in what is beyond your control about such relations, as they externally distance you from your internal nature (3.16,4). Because we cannot control what happens in the external social arena, Epictetus demands that we should be indifferent to much of it. Marcus perpetuates this advisory, instructing in Meditations to “be deaf to gossip” (1.5). We also see in Seneca’s 7th letter “Avoiding the Crowd” the concern that “contact with a crowd is harmful” because of the external ways the many can “contaminate us” (7.2).

Being indifferent to what occurs socially and externally is within our internal control for the Stoics. Indifference does not entirely negate the presence of externalities in our lives. The earlier-raised topic of our health and well-being for example comes under what the Stoics variously categorize as a “preferred indifferent.” We can be physically healthy and even prefer healthiness over unhealthiness without being dependent on healthiness for our sense of internal self and living in accordance with our nature. By not being dependent on external contingencies our indifference accords with what the Stoics refer to as our “rational nature.” It is possibly surprising for the uninitiated reader of Stoicism to learn that within this rationality of our internal self, the essential nature of our communal and social self for the Stoics also operates. Indeed this rationality is the key to understanding our social/communal nature for the Stoics.

A Rational and Universal Community

The Stoics do not restrict their understanding of community to the usual definitions of people living together in the same geographic location, or being connected by shared interests and lifestyles. The Stoic idea of community instead involves something grander. We can begin to comprehend this Stoic community by considering what Stoicism believes we all primarily have in common; the just-discussed rational nature.

This rational nature for the Stoics is a fragment of God’s rationality. We each embody God’s rationality because it permeates the entire universe. To have a rational nature is our default mode and a fundamental Stoic principle. As Diogenes Laërtius reports in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the earliest Greek Stoics such as Chrysippus observe for example a “right reason which pervades everything” (7.53).

The concept of God’s rationality being omnipresent illustrates the Stoic belief in a pantheistic universe. If a divine rationality infuses the entire world furthermore, your internal rationality is in harmony with that world. These pantheistic conditions are why for Chrysippus our rational nature is a “common nature, and also human nature in particular” (7.53). There are equally traces of this impression in Seneca’s 95th letter “The Role of General Principles” when he states that this “universe you see, containing the human and the divine, is a unity” (95.51).

This notion of a universal harmony that is conditioned by a pantheistic rationality contextualizes the earlier discussion about self-preservation. Cato’s description of an impulse toward self-preservation has involved not only individual ends or outcomes, but also communal and mutual ones. Cicero describes in De Officiis (On Duties) howthis self-preserving tendency for the Stoics is “fully rationalized and in harmony with nature” (3.6,20). What we can thus now appreciate via the advent of a pantheistic universe is how this rationalized self-preserving inclination accords both with one’s own natural ends and a nature that is beyond an individual.

This shared rationality is crucial to the Stoics’ broader sense of community. Stobaeus notes the Stoic view that as our nature involves a common rationality, so such rationality underpins how the “virtuous benefit one another.” This translation comes from Anthony Long and David Sedley’s encyclopedic work The Hellenistic Philosophers. Long and Sedley commentate on this point that the “mutual betterment” between individuals arises via a “community of goods” which “belong” to all who live by the common rationality (377).

A possibly concrete direction of the virtuousness involved in our universally rational and social nature presents in Hierocles’ essay “How Should One Behave toward One’s Relatives?” Hierocles describes our interpersonal relations via concentric rings that encircle us. Our closest relations as Stobaeus’ Anthology informs us are for Hierocles in the inner circles. Conversely the outermost circle represents the “entire race of human beings” (4.84.23).

Hierocles notes that a virtuous and “well-tempered’ individual will not be content with this divided and somewhat anti-communal structure though. The Stoic citizen should instead feel a responsibility to bring people from the outer circles in closer. Hierocles bases this order on what he asserts are our rationally communal instincts, stating in his treatise “On Marriage” that “our entire race is naturally disposed to community” (4.67.21). The rational, just, and good response to the distinction between the circles is to reduce the distances between people.

The resulting conception verges on a theory of the oneness of all humanity. Even more spectacularly in terms of arguments around singularity, Marcus’ Meditations defines the universe as “one living creature” (4.40). If the terminology of a “living creature” seems abstract, it can help to appreciate Marcus’ pantheistic view that God’s rationality “activates” the material world (4.40). The world is alive because God’s rationality activates its otherwise material passivity. Given that this active principle (divine rationality) is shared by all things, it is the condition for a universal commonality and community. Pantheistic reason underpins a universal unification in which the “rational directly implies social” (10.2).

The Stoic impression of community therefore requires that what is internal about our individual rationality is also present in the universe around us. A life lived in accordance with nature is a life lived in accordance with the rationality of this universe, where “the nature of the Whole is what my own nature is” (2.9). Having appreciated this common dispersal of individual nature we can now consider how this “Whole” is portrayed not only as a “community” but also in terms of a “city” living.

Cities and Hierarchies

At first glance this ancient conception of our communal nature appears to pair with current human living arrangements when the Stoics discuss it in the context of a “city.” As with Stoic definitions of community, and of self-preservation, however, there is a “rational” condition to the Stoic understanding of the city community. Appreciating this condition requires inviting the second head of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, to the discussion.

Diogenes informs us in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that Cleanthes’ predecessor, Zeno, as well as his successor, Chrysippus, discuss in their respective works titled Republic what it means to live in a city (7.28-7.33). It is through Stobaeus’ account of Cleanthes’ position (as found in Long and Sedley’s aforementioned translations) though that the early Stoic correlation of the city with rationality becomes interpretable:

…a city is a habitable structure, in which people who take refuge have access to the dispensation of justice 

SVF 1.587

What can we interpret here regarding a Stoic connection between rationality and a city community? Firstly, the city “refuge” that Cleanthes describes is a world in which we can live in accordance with our nature. The city is the entire rational universe, evidenced in how Cleanthes and elsewhere Chrysippus both describe it as “administered” by God’s universal reason and perfect justness. While a city community in Stoicism can refer to a metropolis with a precise geography and “habitable structure,” it also denotes a pantheistic universal arena.

Marcus’ Meditations also recognizes this double sense of the city. The notion of a cosmic community of which we are all a part takes on citied themes when he describes how we are each an “inhabitant of this highest City, of which all other cities are mere households” (3.11,2). This highest city is the rational universe itself, the “dear city of Zeus” (4.23).

Modern theories about how our city environments socialize us in variously contingent ways typically reduce our everyday lives to sociologically discoverable, structurally ordered behavioral patterns. Marcus’ sense of the universally interwoven community in which we all exist also involves ordered and patterned descriptions of our behaviors. For the Stoic though this ordering marks a universe’s essential harmony rather than locally contingent constructions:

All things are meshed together, a sacred bond unites them…ordered together in their places they together make up one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things…one substance, one law, one common reason

Meditations 7.9

Marcus indeed rhetorically questions of anyone who doubts that our co-operatively ordered labors contribute to a universal community, “can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world?” (5.1,1). The universally collegial orderings among “all things” affirm how for Marcus the entire “universe is a kind of community” (4.3,2).

Despite this unity we must recognize that Marcus’ communal ordering hierarchizes certain creatures. While “all things collaborate in all that happens” (4.40), some things are not as rational as other things. Animate beings (primarily humans) for example are “superior to inanimate” aspects of the universe (5.16). These inferior things are in Marcus’ view “made in the interest of the superior” whereas the superior creatures are made “in the interest of each other” (5.16).

While this might seem like an exclusionary rather than a communal structure it in fact describes the ordered nature of a pantheistic, rationalized world. Every aspect of the world has a collegial role in the overall structure, where “its end lies in that to which its course is directed; and where its end is, there also for each is its benefit and its good” (5.16). Marcus here evidently draws on Epictetus’ similar descriptions of a ladder of existence that is based on different degrees of rationality.

In his Discourses Epictetus states accordingly that “creatures whose constitutions are different have different ends and functions accordingly” (1.6,14-20). It is only a human capacity for example to understand and appreciate God’s works in the world. This nevertheless is just one feature of a “Whole” collective design and order that involves the “universal accommodation of things to one another” (1.6,6).

This discussion has been a clarification of our communal nature for the Stoics. Modern perspectives on the inherently socialized status of the self often point to how the social environments into which we are born determine our social constitutions. For ancient Stoic arguments however there is an essential social nature to each of us that does not depend on, nor is even influenced by, the socialized arenas and arrangements that we each call home.

Will Johncock is the author of Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times . His next book Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (out early 2020) compares ancient Stoic philosophy and modern social theory on questions of the relationship between an individual and their collective environment.He has lectured at UNSW Sydney. You can find him on Twitter @willjohncock