Stoic Week 2019 Report Part 3: Impact of doing Stoic Week Tim LeBon

Hundreds of people across the world completed Stoic Week in October 2019. This report will  answer  a number of questions about the impact of Stoic Week, including

  1. Did participants’ well-being increase?
  2. In what ways do participants benefit?
  3. Does a week of Stoicism help reduce anger?
  4. Did participants actually become more Stoic as a result of doing Stoic Week?
  5. Finally, for those who took part in Stoic Week and want to compare their scores – What were the average scores before and after Stoic Week>

The main article answers these questions. Detailed statistics can be found in the appendices.

  1. Did participants’ well-being increase?

Well-being improved significantly for most people who completed Stoic Week. There was significant improvement in life satisfaction, flourishing and the balance of positive over  negative emotions. The full details can be found in table 1 (Overall Findings Stoic Week 2019 –  Impact of taking part in Stoic Week) in Appendix A. The changes were similar to what has been found in previous Stoic Weeks. So we can confidently predict that if you take part in Stoic Week, your well-being is likely to increase.

2. In what ways do participants benefit?

A common misconception about  Stoicism is that the aim is to be free of emotions. It’s often pointed out by Modern Stoics that this is a myth, Epictetus  specifically says that we should not be free from emotions “like a statue” (Discourse 3.2). Seneca says that “The wise man is joyful, happy and calm” (Letter 59 to Lucilius on Pleasure and Joy).

But do the results from our questionnaires support Modern Stoics or their critics? The resounding answer is that the facts back up Modern Stoics.  Stoics experience bothmore positive emotions and less negative emotions. See tables 2 and 3 in Appendix A for the details.

We also received a lot of qualitative feedback about participants’ experience of Stoic Week. It truly was a rich and rewarding experience for many participants. Here is a sample of the benefits reported

  • Understanding myself
“Making me think I have thought clearer the past week and have less tension.”
“To refresh the Stoic philosophy and to bring it to the forefront of my mind again”
“Using the daily meditations to actively think about the virtues and how I can apply them to my life. Being able to see my problems and issues for what they really are and not magnify the extent of the problemsIt has been a great opportunity to experiment with philosophy as a way of life, a practical form of wisdom. I have practiced meditation for years, and these Stoic spiritual exercises feel both familiar and different. I am grateful for this experience and will continue the practice.”
  • Getting more Knowledge about Stoicism
  • I remind myself to distinguish what is in my control from what is not in my control.  This has been very helpful with recent difficult events.
    Also I have come to think of happiness as something I do i.e. a result of my actions,  rather than as something that happens to me. This also is a very important change of attitude.
“It helps me feel how to become a better person.”
“Creating a daily habit around Stoic principles.”
“Stepping back from things we have no control over”
  • Better decision making, friendlier, more conscious about my thoughts/thinking
  • I am more mindful of my feelings and thoughts as I am experiencing them. I am also more compassionate towards people who tend to irritate me.
  • Deeper thought and reflection
  • Better control of anger, angst and distress. A better understand of what I want from life
  • Lessening of worry and stress
  • A feeling of joy from out of the blue
  • More feelings of aliveness and happiness
  • Greater contentment with my life

3. Does a week of Stoicism help reduce anger?

Stoics wrote in  a particularly insightful and relevant manner  about anger, most notably perhaps Seneca’s On Anger). Anger management is also a topic of considerable interest to contemporary psychologists, since many people – and  those around them – suffer from excessive anger and frustration.

This year, to help discover the relationship of Stoicism and anger, we asked participants to fill in the ADS-S, a validated measure of anger. So – did being Stoic for a week lead to a significant reduction in anger?  The short answer is “Yes, Stoicism reduced anger by 10%” –  see Table 4 in Appendix A for the full details.

The ADS-S includes one item of particular interest

 “When I feel angry, I boil inside, do not show it, and keep things in.”

This item measures the extent to which people repress anger, perhaps displaying the “stiff upper lip” which some still associate with Stoicism. If Stoicism really did lead to repressing anger, you would have expected this to increase after Stoic week. Instead , this item showed a reduction of 12% Stoicsm does not  lead to repression of anger.

4. Did participants actually become more Stoic as a result of doing Stoic Week?

There are sceptics out there who dismiss these findings, asserting that people might have benefited just because they tried something  and not because they were becoming more Stoic. This criticism has carried considerably less weight since we began to measure participants’ degree of Stoicism, through the SABS (Stoic Attitudes and Beliefs Scale). Not only did the SABS as a whole increase, but every single item of the SABS (all 60) moved in the expected direction.

The following 6 items showed the biggest change after Stoic Week.

# Item % change
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. (reverse-scored) 24.6
3 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel distressed. (reverse-scored) 20.3
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. (reverse-scored) 17.0
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. (reverse-scored) 16.2
23  I cannot really be harmed by what other people say. 15.3
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 15.3

This is a really significant result, since these items all relate strongly to good mental health.

5.What were the average scores before and after Stoic Week?

If you took part in Stoic Week, then you will have been informed of your scores before and after Stoic Week – by email, if you provided one. So how do you measure compared to other people? The following table tells you all you need to know.

Measure Average score at  start of Stoic Week Average score at end of Stoic week
Life Satisfaction (SWL) 23 27
Balance of positive over negative emotions (SPANE) 5 11
Flourishing (Flourish) 43 47
Anger (ADS-S) 34 28.5
Degree of Stoicism (SABS 5.0) 300 332

Average scores at the start and end of Stoic Week, 2019


Appendix A  Impact of doing Stoic Week

  Stoic Week 2019   Stoic Week 2018 Stoic Week 2017 Stoic Week 2016 Stoic Week 2015 Stoic Week 2014
No of participants at start 1725 3702 2870 1803 2503 1953
Valid questionnaires completed at end 416 852 689 270 726 566
Increase in Flourishing 7.5% 8% 10% 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 11.5% 12% 14% 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 9.5% 9.5% 11% 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 17% 14% 14% 14% 14% 16%
Reduction in Anger (ADS-S) 10%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 8% 10% 9% 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 24% 23% 24% 15% 29% 29%

Table 1 Overall Findings Stoic Week 2019 –  Impact of taking part in Stoic Week

Positive Emotions 2019 % change 2018 % change 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % change 2014 % change 2013 % change
Average positive 9.5 9.5 11 10 10 11 9
Contented 13 14 14 15 14 14 12
Joyful 12 11 14 12 13 13 12
Happy 9 10 11 7 11 9 9
Good 8 7 9 8 9 10 7
Pleasant 8 8 9 9 9 10 8
Positive 9 7 9 10 8 13 8

Table 2: Impact on Positive Emotions

Negative  Emotions 2019 % change 2018 % change 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % change 2014 % change 2013 % change
Average negative -17   -14 -14 -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -15 -13 -15 -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -17 -15 -16 -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -17 -15 -15 -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -19 -14 -12 -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -17 -13 -14 -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -16 -15 -13 -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 3:  Impact on Negative Emotions

Impact on Anger (ADS-S)

  Anger overall Anger-In Subscale Anger Vengeance Subscale Anger Reactivity Subscale   Anger single item question (SPANE)
Start 31.7 12.6 6.7 12.4 -2.4
End 28.5 11.2 6.1 11 -1.9
% Change 10.3 11 7.7 11 19

Table 4: Impact on Anger

Impact on Flourishing

Flourishing Scale Item 2019 % increase 2018 % 2017 % 2016 % 2015 % 2014 % 2013 % Theme
1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 12 12 15 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 8 10 13 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3.  I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 8 10 12 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 7 7 10 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
5.  I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 4 6 8 6 7 8 5 Competent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 6 7 8 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
7. I am optimistic about my future. 10 9 11 10 12 11 18 Optimism
8. People respect me. 5 5 7 9 7 7 5 Respected

Table 5: Impact on Flourishing

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Percentage Increase per question 2019 2018 2017 2016  2015   2014 2013 Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 12 13 16 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
2. The conditions of my life are excellent 9 10 11 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 10 9 10 10 13 13 11 Needs met
4. I am satisfied with my life 11 11 14 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 17 17 19 24 20 17 17 Acceptance

Table 6: Impact on  Satisfaction with Life

Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS 5.0)


# SABS Item Start end % increase
1 I think about my life as an ongoing project to become a better person. 6.3 6.6 4.0
2 It can sometimes be a good thing to become angry at people. 4.3 4.6 7.0
3 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel distressed. 3.6 4.3 20.3
4 Having good understanding and good character is all that is required in order to be happy. 4.8 5.4 14.2
5 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brother/sisterhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling angry and resentful. 5.5 5.9 8.2
6 The universe is benevolent in its overall plan. 4.2 4.6 8.3
7 I regularly spend time reflecting on what is most important to enable me to live a good and happy 5.5 5.9 8.2
8 Bad luck could stop me being happy. 4.4 5.0 11.8
9 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 5.2 5.6 9.1
10 It is my duty to help others. 5.8 6.0 4.8
11 Sometimes a controlled experience of anger can be helpful in resolving conflicts with others 3.6 3.9 7.6
12  I usually do the right thing. 5.6 5.9 6.9
13 I do not act on urges when it would be unwise to act on them 4.9 5.4 10.5
14  I am committed to helping humanity in general. 5.6 5.9 5.3
15 I treat everyone fairly. 5.6 5.9 6.3
16 To flourish as a human being all you need is good character and understanding of what really matters in life 5.4 5.9 10.1
17 If things don’t go well for my friends, I can’t lead a good life. 5.1 5.3 4.6
18 I take active steps to reduce the suffering of others. 5.2 5.6 6.6
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 4.1 4.8 17.0
20 It is possible to lead a happy life even after the death of someone we love. 6.0 6.2 3.3
21 The universe embodies wisdom. 4.7 4.9 5.8
22 When making an important decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” 5.7 6.1 6.6
23  I cannot really be harmed by what other people say. 4.9 5.6 15.3
24 The universe is a living thing. 4.9 5.1 3.3
25 I need quite a lot of money in order to be happy. 5.2 5.6 6.9
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 5.1 5.5 9.0
27 We can’t really control other people. 6.2 6.5 4.6
28 There is a rational and orderly plan in the universe and in the causes of events. 3.9 4.3 11.5
29 When making a significant decision I reflect on what a good role model would do. 4.8 5.5 12.8
30 Nothing except our judgements and voluntary actions are truly under our control in life. 6.1 6.4 4.8
31 I pay attention to my judgements about good or bad things or people as I am making them. 5.3 5.8 9.4
32  I need to be well thought of by others in order to be happy. 4.5 5.0 12.2
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 3.8 4.4 16.2
34 It is good to think about life as an ongoing journey towards becoming a better person. 6.3 6.6 3.4
35 I am committed to helping my friends. 5.8 6.1 4.9
36 I  pay attention to my thoughts about what I intend to do  before I act on them. 5.4 5.8 6.8
37 I want to become a better person ethically. 6.4 6.6 3.1
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 4.9 5.7 15.3
39 It is right to feel intense and overwhelming grief after a significant loss 2.7 3.0 13.4
40 I view other people as fellow-members of the brother/sisterhood of humankind. 5.6 5.9 5.7
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life. 5.0 5.4 8.2
42 I can’t control how I feel. 4.9 5.4 10.2
43 I need to be in good health in order to be happy. 4.1 4.7 14.2
44 I am committed to helping my family. 6.1 6.3 2.7
45 Every day I spend some time thinking about how I can best face challenges in the day ahead. 4.9 5.6 13.8
46 Our voluntary actions are among the only things truly under our control in life. 6.0 6.3 4.9
47 As long as you have the right attitude, you can lead a good life even in the most difficult circumstances. 5.9 6.2 5.2
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. 3.5 4.4 24.6
49 I care about the suffering of others 5.9 6.0 2.9
50 I often do what I feel like doing rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing. 4.6 5.1 11.5
51 Our judgements are amongst the only things truly under our control in life. 5.8 6.2 7.5
52 I see my happiness as fully compatible with caring for other people. 5.6 6.0 8.1
53 The best idea is to give up trying to control people and instead focus on our own actions and our judgements and character. 6.4 6.6 3.2
54 There is no overall plan to the universe. 3.6 4.0 10.7
55 I think about what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with misfortunes in life. 4.9 5.5 13.4
56 If things don’t go well for my family, I can’t lead a good life. 4.7 5.0 7.4
57 I am committed to helping in my local community. 4.9 5.4 10.8
58 It does not help me to get angry 6.0 6.2 4.2
59 it is possible to lead a happy life even when we have lost success or wealth. 5.8 6.1 5.8
60 We can sometimes influence how others behave, but we can’t completely control other people. 6.4 6.4 0.9


Table 7: Impact of taking part  in Stoic Week 2019 on Stoic attitudes and behaviours

The SABS items that showed the biggest percentage increases  during Stoic Week were as follows

# Item % change Start End
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. 24.6 3.5 4.4
3 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel distressed. 20.3 3.6 4.3
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 17.0 4.1 4.8
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 16.2 3.8 4.4
23  I cannot really be harmed by what other people say. 15.3 4.9 5.6
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 15.3 4.9 5.7
43 I need to be in good health in order to be happy. 14.2 4.1 4.7
4 Having good understanding and good character is all that is required in order to be happy. 14.2 4.8 5.4
45 Every day I spend some time thinking about how I can best face challenges in the day ahead. 13.8 4.9 5.6
39 It is right to feel intense and overwhelming grief after a significant loss 13.4 2.7 3.0
55 I think about what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with misfortunes in life. 13.4 4.9 5.5
29 When making a significant decision I reflect on what a good role model would do. 12.8 4.8 5.5
32  I need to be well thought of by others in order to be happy. 12.2 4.5 5.0
8 Bad luck could stop me being happy. 11.8 4.4 5.0
50 I often do what I feel like doing rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing. 11.5 4.6 5.1
28 There is a rational and orderly plan in the universe and in the causes of events. 11.5 3.9 4.3
57 I am committed to helping in my local community. 10.8 4.9 5.4
54 There is no overall plan to the universe. 10.7 3.6 4.0
13 I do not act on urges when it would be unwise to act on them 10.5 4.9 5.4
42 I can’t control how I feel. 10.2 4.9 5.4
16 To flourish as a human being all you need is good character and understanding of what really matters in life 10.1 5.4 5.9

The SABS items which had the highest scores at the end of Stoic week were as follows:

# Item After Before % increase
37 I want to become a better person ethically. 6.6 6.4 3.1
53 The best idea is to give up trying to control people and instead focus on our own actions and our judgements and character. 6.6 6.4 3.2
1 I think about my life as an ongoing project to become a better person. 6.6 6.3 4.0
34 It is good to think about life as an ongoing journey towards becoming a better person. 6.6 6.3 3.4
27 We can’t really control other people. 6.5 6.2 4.6
60 We can sometimes influence how others behave, but we can’t completely control other people. 6.4 6.4 0.9
30 Nothing except our judgements and voluntary actions are truly under our control in life. 6.4 6.1 4.8
46 Our voluntary actions are among the only things truly under our control in life. 6.3 6.0 4.9
44 I am committed to helping my family. 6.3 6.1 2.7
51 Our judgements are amongst the only things truly under our control in life. 6.2 5.8 7.5
58 It does not help me to get angry 6.2 6.0 4.2
47 As long as you have the right attitude, you can lead a good life even in the most difficult circumstances. 6.2 5.9 5.2
20 It is possible to lead a happy life even after the death of someone we love. 6.2 6.0 3.3

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.

Studying Philosophy in Athens: the Case of Zeno by Christina Kourfali

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 continue this year’s sequence of posts with a summary of Prof. Christina Kourfali’s Stoicon talk which follows below (a longer version of it may be found here) – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

Zeno was already 22 years old when he came to Athens and we must wonder what his general level of knowledge was, what instruction he had received that led him to pursue higher philosophical education in this city. We can certainly accept what Laertius mentions: “His father, Mnaseas, being a merchant often went to Athens and brought away many books about Socrates for Zeno, while he was still a boy. Hence he had been well trained even before he left his native place” (D.L. 7.2.).

Zeno and Cynics

Picture him, then, as a cultured young man, in 312 BC sitting in a corner of the ancient agora at a bookshop “on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia. He was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day, he became Crates’ pupil” (D.L. 7.2-3).

There is no doubt that Crates was a master of Zeno because the latter has written the book Recollections of Crates. However, “later Stoics may have exaggerated Zeno’s connection with Crates, through whom they traced their spiritual ancestry to Diogenes of Sinope, Antisthenes, and finally Socrates himself” (Hahm D. (1977), p. 220).

In any case, Zeno seems to have been taught by the Cynics: 1. The rejection of the encyclic lessons, for they do not consider the acquisition of knowledge an end, but the achievement of personal virtue. 2. The principle that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought. 3. The view that virtue can be taught and whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice is perceived as indifferent.

But Zeno, in the end, did not pursue the way of the Cynics, and this wasn’t because he was shy, as suggested by Laertius, but because of his perception of the idea of “living in accordance with nature”. For Zeno the term “nature” had a whole different substance.

Zeno and Megarians

 The Megarians – coming from the city of Megara – were also active in Athens at that time. As Laertius reports, Zeno attended the lectures of Stilpo. It is even said that Stilpon was such a capable master that many followed him, abandoning their own masters. This might also have been done by Zeno, though Crates may have put forth strong resistance. As Laertius refers: “When Crates laid hold on him by the cloak to drag him from Stilpo, Zeno said, “The right way to seize a philosopher, Crates, is by the ears: persuade me then and drag me off by them; but, if you use violence, my body will be with you, but my mind with Stilpo” (D.L. 7.24).

Stilpo was famous for disputation but best known for his apatheia. Indeed, when Demetrius Poliorcetes destroyed and pillaged Megara, Stilpo declared that he had lost nothing, since he had maintained his virtue and knowledge. «We should probably not think of Zeno as becoming a formal student of Stilpo», notes Hahm, «for this would have meant moving to Megara. But it is quite likely that Zeno attended his lectures when Stilpo visited Athens» (Hahm D. (1977), p.221).

Diodoros Cronos and his student Philo of Megara are also included in Zeno’s Megarian teachers. Zeno worked hard at dialectic with Diodorus (fl. 300 B.C.), who had an enormous impact on Stoicism in general. He was among the first explorers of propositional logic, and became particularly known for the Master (or Ruling) argument, which is based on three sentences, so named due to the fact that to retain all three is impossible because of their mutual conflict.

The Influence of Plato and his Academy

Laertius mentions (7.2) that Zeno had been Xenocrates’(396-314 B.C.) pupil. Sandbach questions Laertius’ view, arguing that it is chronologically impossible; “if Xenocrates was not already dead when Zeno arrived in Athens, his death cannot have been far off” (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 13). However, Zeno could have caught up, even for a little while, with attending Xenocrates. Besides, his views were supported by his pupil Polemo, successor to his school and admittedly Zeno’s teacher.

Polemoled the Academy from 314 to 276B.C., and was chiefly known for his fine character, which set an example of self-control for his students. The Stoics probably derived from Polemo:

1. Their concept of oikeiosis (an accommodation to nature),

2. The importance of living according to nature, and practical philosophy,

3. That the kosmos is god.

David Sedley stresses: «If I am even half-right in my reconstruction, the continuity between the physics of the late fourth-century Academy and the physics of the Stoa is a profound one. Zeno, it seems, really did learn his physics from his Platonist teacher Polemo» (Sedley, D.N. (2002), p. 77-78).

The same view was seconded by Laertius with the following anecdote hinting that Zeno taught at his school what he had learned at Polemo: «Polemois said to have addressed him thus: “You slip in, Zeno, by the garden door –I’m quite aware of it– you filch my doctrines and give them a Phoenician make-up”» (D.L. 7.25).

The view of Laertius is obviously exaggerated; however, as Gr. Reydams-Schilst argues, it is almost certain that via Polemo the Old Academy helped to shape Stoicism.

We ought not, finally, to overlook the idea of the four cardinal virtues, perhaps most famously articulated in Book 4 of Plato’s Republic (427e–435c, 441c–443c), which was embraced by the Stoics, as in much other subsequent Greek and Roman philosophy: phronêsis, sôphrosunê, andreia, dikaiosunê.

However, since Zeno was not a member of the Academy, he was able to adopt what he thought proper from the physics of Platonists, such as the theory of two principles, but at the same time to ignore what did not interest him, such as the tripartite division of the Soul or its incorporeality. The stoic view that the Soul is corporeal would make both Plato and Aristotle turn in their graves. This freedom led to the birth of a new philosophy. Finally the Stoics read and developed Plato’s cosmology independently of Academic interpretation.

Zeno and Peripatetics

When Zeno came to Athens, Aristotlewas already dead, but his pupils were active in the city, notably Theophrastus. It is, however, a fact that the biographical tradition does not mention a Peripatetic among Zeno’s masters. The only reference to Aristotle ascribed to Zeno is in his report of how Crates the Cynic was once reading Aristotle’s Protrepticus.

However, both earlier and contemporary scholars are certain of the substantial relation between the peripatetic and stoic philosophy. Carneades’ view that the Stoics and Peripatetics taught essentially the same ethical doctrines is well-known, varying only in their terminology. For example, to express disposition/mood, the Stoics prefer διάθεσις, but intending the sense of the Aristotelian ἕξις.

After all, the Aristotelian school was in its early days much concerned with problems of ethics. It would be rather strange if the Stoics did not take notice of what was being said in the Lyceum (Rist J. M. (1980), p. 1.).

It is widely known that there were two different sets of Aristotle’s books: the ones containing notes on his lessons taught at his school, the works of Corpus Aristotelicum, the esoteric ones, as we know them, and those published by Aristotle for common use, the so-called exoteric (It should be noted that no exoteric book exists today).

Zeno had the opportunity during his twenty years of study either to obtain permission from the Peripatetics to become familiar with the esoteric books of their school (the Corpus Aristotelicum) or to read the exoteric ones released by Aristotle himself and being available in the libraries or the bookstores of Athens, or, finally, attend Theophrastus’ classes.

We are certain that Theophrastus had in his possession the Corpus Aristotelicum, but we do not know whether, or not, they were accessible to outsiders. It is, then, highly doubtful that Zeno might have read the esoteric books, but very probable to have read some of the exoteric ones.

It should not be forgotten that Zeno had studied his philosophical predecessors. Among the works written by himself, as Laertius mentions, are also the Pythagorean Questions and the Homeric Problems in five books. Why would he not have read, then, Aristotle’s works, as well, which had been circulating in the Athenian agora?    

Finally, we should reasonably accept the fact that Zeno had come into contact with Theophrastus. “Theophrastus was beyond doubt the most popular lecturer of the day; his lectures attracted a total of two thousand students. It would be strange if Zeno had lived in Athens, thirsting for instruction, without having heard so much as a single lecture of Theophrastus”, argues Hahm.

Plutarch even mentions an anecdote according to which Zeno said with reference to Theophrastus’ numerous audience ‘his choir is indeed larger, but mine had the sweeter voices’. The anecdote clearly hints both to the simultaneous coexistence of the two lecturers and to the affinity of their subject matter.

It is clear from the above that Zeno came into contact with Theophrastus and that he was aware of Aristotle’s views. After all, one could accept Aristotle’s and Zeno’s views as the natural consequences of the independent reaction of the two men to the same problems (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 55), although Aristotle’s answers to the theories postulated by Plato had preceded the appearance of Zeno’s philosophy by many years.

Anyway, if the above is true, that is, the fact that Zeno was influenced in shaping his philosophy both by his contemporary and the earlier philosophers, then the truth of the anecdote about Zeno’s love of learning is incontestably proven: “A dialectician once showed him seven logical forms concerned with the sophism known as “The Reaper,” and Zeno asked him how much he wanted for them. Being told a hundred drachmas, he promptly paid two hundred: to such lengths would he go in his love of learning.” (D.L. 7. 25)

The zealous Zeno, however, was a pioneer in that he succeeded in creating a completely new, independent and systematic philosophy, which uses knowledge to provide man with a life in harmony with his nature, a blissful life. Still today, we should feel grateful to Zeno –this great philosopher– who meticulously studied the philosophical tradition, while listening to the best teachers of his day, and in the end managed to critically embody the great wealth of ancient Greek philosophy either by embracing his predecessors’ best answers, or by giving his own answers to the questions being posed. Working hard, he devised a new original philosophical system that can teach any human being the way to enjoy life.

Christina Kourfali teaches Stoic philosophy as a way of life in Thessaloniki of Greece, and has established a community called Stoiccloud. She is the author of Live Like The Stoics: How to Get Self-Awareness and Serenity, and a variety of articles on Stoic philosophy. She has spoken at related conferences, and is a high school director teaching self-awareness to her adolescent students.

How to Practice Epictetus’ Disciplines for a Good Life by Massimo Pigliucci & Gregory Lopez

Stoicism is a practical philosophy. That means that the theory is not to be considered for its own sake, but only insofar as it aids practice. Then again, practice without theoretical guidance not a philosophy would make! Which is why at the latest Stoicon, in Athens, one of us (Massimo) ran a workshop based on some exercises we developed together and published in our A Handbook for New Stoics (The Experiment, published in the UK as Live Like a Stoic, Penguin). Three of these exercises, one from each of Epictetus famous three disciplines, are detailed below. If you wish, you can download exercise-specific sheets from the publisher’s web site, to help you in your practice.

Each exercise has the same basic structure: it begins with a hypothetical vignette illustrating a potential real life situation. We then look at a pertinent quote from one of the ancient Stoics, which inspires the exercise. The theoretical context of the quote is explained, and then the actual exercise — meant to be carried out for at least a week — is presented. We hope this will be useful for your daily practices!

Discipline of Desire & Aversion: Discover what’s really in your control, and what’s not

It’s easy to think that we have control over our lives when things are going the way we want. But what happens when we experience uncertainty? Consider Alice, who faces this question at her job. Her quarterly performance review is coming up, and though she’s been doing well, a familiar anxiety floods her body as negative what-if scenarios cross her mind. Could learning more about what’s really in her control help Alice? What effect would that have on her psyche?

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1

Epictetus’s words may be more familiar to you in the form of the famous Serenity Prayer adopted by a number of twelve-step programs:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, but it reflects wisdom that is common to Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, and of course to Stoicism. Indeed, the underlying concept is central to Stoic practice and is often referred to as the “dichotomy of control.” Epictetus begins the Enchiridion — his manual on Stoicism — with it, and it is one of the most cited Stoic sayings, having countless applications in daily life.

Let us first understand exactly what Epictetus means by his words. He is dividing the world into two big chunks: the set of things under our (complete) control and the set of things not (completely) under our control.

The basic idea is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent. For those things that are not under our complete control, it isn’t that we stop caring about them, but rather that we come to a deep understanding that we cannot guarantee that these indifferent things will turn out the way we wish them to. The way we come to this understanding is through constant practice. This practice is the path toward ataraxia, the Greek word meaning serenity. We become serene by training ourselves to only want what is completely in our control — so in a very real sense, we’ll be serene because we always get what we want! This is the promise of the Discipline of Desire.

Taking a closer look at Epictetus’s categories, what does he say is in our control, and what is not? Under our control, according to him, are “thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing.” We need to be careful here, because these English words don’t necessarily carry the same connotations as their original Greek counterparts. Moreover, modern Stoics (such as ourselves!) may want to take into account advances in the cognitive sciences that were not available to Epictetus, and so we may arrive at a somewhat modified list of what truly is under our control. To understand what Epictetus is getting at, let’s break down the process further, starting with “thoughts” since it is listed first (for good reason).

“Thought” here is the English translation of hypolepsis, literally “grasping under” or “taking up.” More figuratively, this means “judgment” or “opinion” (similar to scooping up an idea or viewpoint — you’re grabbing under it to grasp or cradle it). These can be types of thoughts, and are not necessarily fully conscious ones. Epictetus may have listed “thought” first as it’s the first step in how we upset ourselves: we judge things to be inherently good or bad. Sometimes these judgments are explicit (e.g., thinking to yourself That guy’s a moron!). But they don’t have to be. For example, if you get angry at a person, you are implicitly judging the person’s actions as bad, even if the words “that person is doing a bad thing” never cross your mind.

Next comes “impulse” (horme in Greek). This is an impulse to act, but not necessarily in a base or automatic way (what we may think of as impulsive). Pulling your hand away from a hot stove and screaming is not an impulse in the way Epictetus uses the term. Instead, impulses come about from the first step of “thought” or “judgment.” If you judge something to be good, you’ll want it. If you judge it to be bad, you’ll want to avoid it. Impulses are then urges to act based on value judgments.

From thought (the judgment) and impulse (the desire to act) comes the “will to get and to avoid.” We decide if it is worth spending the energy, time, and money. For example, we consider these expenses when buying a brand-new car, reflecting the value judgment that possessing it is a good thing. Then we go about and make complex plans to acquire the new car. So our complex, conscious actions come about from value judgments and impulses to act.

Epictetus claims that all three of these things (thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get) are ultimately under our control. It is no accident that these three areas of complete control correspond to Epictetus’s three disciplines: you work with thoughts in the Discipline of Assent, impulses in the Discipline of Action, and the will to avoid and to get in the Discipline of Desire. In this way, Stoic practice trains you to master all areas of what in theory you can control. That’s Stoic training in a nutshell.

Just because these things are in your control doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes influenced by external factors (such as other people’s opinions) or by internal ones (such as your physical sensations or more automatic urges, like a craving for a snack). But, ultimately, they are under your control because you can make a conscious decision to ignore your cravings or to override the opinions of others when it comes to your own choices.

What about the sort of things that Epictetus says are not under our control? They include “the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” This is a very large set that essentially comprises all things external to our conscious mind. Our body can get sick despite our best efforts at taking care of it; we may lose our property because of accident or theft; our reputation may be ruined due to circumstances we cannot influence; and we may lose our job through no fault of our own.

You may object that the sort of things we just mentioned are, however, under our partial control. They are not similar to, say, the weather, about which we can truly do nothing at all. Of course, Epictetus knew this! What he is saying here is akin to a “best bet argument”: if you bet your peace of mind on things not completely in your control, you’re willingly forfeiting part of your happiness to random chance.

This exercise will help you explore the dichotomy of control. Take time now to choose when you’ll do the exercise each day for the rest of the week. Try to place the exercise toward the end of the day. You can plan to do it at a specific time (e.g., at 9:00 pm) or after an activity you do every day (e.g., brushing your teeth at night).

Sit down at this time Monday through Saturday of this week and choose something that happened that day to write about. It can be anything from seeing a friend for lunch to a meeting at work. We suggest that you choose an event that wasn’t too emotionally upsetting, which could make the exercise more difficult, and you’re just starting out! List what aspects of the event were completely in your control and which weren’t. It may help to add some quick reasons why the thing was or wasn’t in your complete control.

If you have trouble with the exercise, you can use Epictetus’s suggestions of separating out value judgments, impulses, and what you wished to avoid or obtain, as things under your complete control. You can also try separating aspects of the event by “internal” factors (thoughts, desires, wishes) and “external” factors (results), since we can mostly control what goes on inside our heads, and much of what we can’t control happens in the outside world. Don’t feel shackled to these categories. Part of the goal of this exercise is to see whether Epictetus’s suggestions hold true to your experience. Perhaps you’ll find he was correct, and perhaps not.

By doing this exercise daily, looking at specific events in your life, you’ll start to internalize what is really under your complete control and what isn’t. This exercise will also give you a clearer picture of what exactly you should focus your desires and aversions on to achieve peace of mind.

On the seventh day of the week, after you’ve practiced exploring the dichotomy of control, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and write your impressions down. Was this exercise useful to you? How? Did you discover anything about yourself or your world? Did you find it useless? Is there any way you could tweak your approach to make it easier or more useful in the future?

Discipline of Action: Cut Out Busyness

Many of us live in a culture where being busy is a badge of pride. Having full days means you get things done. This signals that you’re a productive member of society and value hard work. However, being busy has its downsides. Consider Liam, who lives a productive professional and family life. His days are always packed. He often has to turn down spending quality time with friends, and also loses out on time for himself. While the Stoics valued making the most of your time, can taking things on be taken too far?

     “You will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: ‘I have no chance to live.’ Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. . . . Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those [that are] the refuse . . . have been left for you. . . . Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 7)

Time is the only thing that, once loaned, can never be paid back, and therefore the one resource we really need to be careful to apportion wisely. Seneca was writing two millennia ago, but he may as well have been speaking in the twenty-first century: our lives are becoming ever busier, but not necessarily more meaningful. The first question a Stoic would ask of someone who is too busy is whether they have their priorities straight. Are we paying sufficient attention to what is most important in our lives, or are we being distracted by inconsequential or downright destructive pursuits? The second issue is one of quality versus quantity, as we moderns would put it. While the phrase “quality time” is more than a bit overused, it gets to the idea that we cram too much into our days, which is not a good recipe for life, or even to get those things done. There is empirical evidence that beyond a certain threshold, more hours spent on a task can actually be deleterious. The reason is simple: human beings need rest and a variety of stimuli in order to keep their minds focused.

There are two other aspects of busyness that Seneca focuses on and that are worth mentioning. The first is that there are few days left, and those are the “refuse,” that is, the lowest quality ones. Seneca is referring to people who have lived long enough that they begin to sense the final stretch. Looking back at their lives, they realize that their time has not been used well. We certainly don’t want to get to that stage only to find that we’re out of time, do we?

Second, we should plan each one of our days as if it were our last. This is another example of Stoic motivation: awareness of death gives value to life. Imagine for a moment if today really were your last day. We bet you would spend it very differently, focusing on things that are important to you, not on trivialities. Of course, you don’t know which day will be your last, or how much time you may have ahead of you, so you should feel the same sense of urgency every day.

Don’t fret about the future, and don’t regret the past. The future hasn’t come yet, and the past is outside of your control. It is the present that demands your attention — a demand that requires you to make important decisions about how you are going to spend this day, and every day, in the moment.

The Discipline of Action can be as much about culling useless actions as it is about cultivating virtuous ones. With this exercise, we encourage you to “check off your days” in order to see if there are any actions that should be cut.

Take some time each night to review how you spent your day, and whether your activities satisfied two factors: they served “your own needs,” that is, helped build character, and they were truly important.

At the end of each day, write up to three activities you did and ask yourself if doing them helped preserve or build your character and whether they were important. Would you still do them, or something like them, if you knew your life were to end soon? The things you list can be short and trivial (e.g., browsing social media, having a beer, or texting a family member) or long and significant (e.g., working on a major project or running a marathon). A mix of both types of activities will be useful, since those that only take a few minutes can add up to huge chunks of time over a lifetime!

The Discipline of Action is ultimately about one goal: to act intentionally to become a better person. This exercise allows you to see how many of your current actions help you in this pursuit. With this in mind, you can make more informed, deliberate decisions about how to act, in order to improve as a person.

After spending a week cataloguing your actions throughout the day, take some time to reflect on them. Review your notes from the week, then write about any trends you’ve noticed. Did you discover any recurring activities that aren’t fulfilling, and don’t improve your character, or help you carry out your responsibilities? Did you discover some actions that you’d like to keep, or do more frequently?

Discipline of Assent: Analyze Anger

We are told that we should pause before acting when we are angry. But while pausing is a useful first step to cope with anger, it’s only the first step. What should one do after pausing? Zhang Wei chose a cognitive approach. When he found himself getting angry at his son for misbehaving, he paused and then used this exercise to assess the situation more logically.

The greatest remedy for anger is delay; beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it. If it delays, it will come to an end. Do not attempt to quell it all at once, for its first impulses are fierce; by plucking away its parts we shall remove the whole. . . . Some offenses we ourselves witness: in these cases let us examine the disposition and purpose of the offender. Perhaps he is a child; let us pardon his youth, he knows not whether he is doing wrong. Or he is a father; he has either rendered such great services, as to have won the right even to wrong us, or perhaps this very act which offends us is his chief merit. . . . Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly. . . . Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe it. Is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself.

Seneca, On Anger, 2.29–30

Seneca picks up the theme of pausing while angry, arguing that delay is, in fact, our chief defense against anger. Do not try to dominate anger, as it escalates quickly and easily overcomes reason in the heat of the moment. Counterintuitively, avoidance, not confrontation, is the winning strategy. Seneca then goes further by advising us to pick apart the causes of our anger; to examine them calmly and carefully, as if on an operating table (but not while you are angry). You need to consider who or what is the cause of your anger. It makes no sense to be angry at a child, for example, since they are incapable of using reason correctly. The better response is to patiently teach them how to behave more reasonably. Perhaps it’s an adult who is causing offense, maybe your own father. In that case be tolerant of his misstep, because he has done so much for you in the past. Or maybe he is right in what he is saying and you should be listening and learning, rather than going off in a huff.

What if you are angry at an inanimate object, or a natural phenomenon, such as a disease? What sense is there in that? Is getting upset and yelling at your computer going to make it apologize to you and stop glitching? We bet that your reaction is more likely to make things worse, not to mention make you look foolish. Diseases and other calamities are part of life, and, again, attacking them isn’t going to help you; you’ll simply feel worse than you might otherwise. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix your computer or cure the disease. On the contrary, reacting calmly and reasonably is far more likely to help you accomplish those goals than outbursts of rage.

Seneca adds two important concepts for our consideration: not only should you not be surprised that some people do unethical things, but take comfort that they will likely get what’s due to them. And in acting unethically, they are already hurting themselves. The first superficially sounds similar to the Stoic version of karma: Logos keeps track of people’s deeds, and in the long run balances out the ledger. Is Seneca somehow saying that we should put faith in karma? We don’t think so.

More likely, Seneca is deploying the Stoic notion that human beings are inclined to virtue by nature, or, as we moderns would put it, we evolved a tendency toward prosocial behavior. This means that most people will object, and sometimes react, to wrongdoing. So, the person who is hurting you today is likely (at least statistically) to get his due at some point in the future. This implies that virtuous behavior is a good bet for flourishing, which is an argument that some modern virtue ethicists, such as Rosalind Hurthouse, make as well.

The second claim, that the wrongdoer is actually hurting himself, derives from the Stoic notion that virtue is the only true good because it is the only thing that can only be used for good. It follows that vice is the only true evil, while everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. We also know from the dichotomy of control that our judgments of what is good and bad are entirely up to us. So the man that Seneca describes is doing wrong of his own volition, and, as a result is staining his soul or his character, depending on your perspective. This is the worst thing someone could do, according to Stoic philosophy. The joke is on the one who is doing wrong by you. There’s no reason to get upset.

With this exercise you will practice pausing when angry, but also take things one step further: recognize where your anger is pointed, and then counter the anger by analyzing it rationally. You can try this on paper for the first few days of a week, but we encourage you to do this on the fly if you’re able.

Seneca gives a few common objects of anger along with ways to rebut them. To warm up, identify objects of anger and possible rebuttals. Writing your analysis and rebuttals out on paper may help you get the hang of things, but with repeated practice you’ll be able to do this even better in your head.

Now that you’ve warmed up, here is the technique to practice whenever you feel the stirrings of anger:

  • Pause, using whatever method works best for you.
  • Name the object of your anger.
  • Rehearse and meditate upon a rebuttal for the causes of your anger.

Feel free to revisit your rebuttals in your head over the course of a week. It may help to mentally rehearse some possible rebuttals to angry thoughts when you have the time and inclination.

This exercise tackles the root cause of anger: our thoughts. Remember, the Stoics believed that it’s our own thoughts that cause our anger, and our thoughts happen rapidly. With enough practice, the stirrings of our anger will turn less and less frequently into full-blown passion.


Excerpted from A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control © Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.

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

Announcing: Modern Stoicism Toronto

We’re delighted to announce that we now have a small team working to represent the Modern Stoicism movement in Toronto, Canada, headed by Donald Robertson and Adam Piercey.

NEWS: Come along to our FREE launch event in Toronto.

Toronto has one of the largest Stoicism communities in the world, perhaps the largest. Donald, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom, are both based in Toronto. We also have several academics based in the universities here with an interest in Stoicism, and there’s a course on Stoicism coming soon to the University of Toronto.

Stoicon, the international Modern Stoicism conference took place in Toronto in 2017 and we will be hosting it again this year. In the lead up to that event we’ll be working to develop the Stoicism community locally. See the Stoicon Toronto 2020 page on the Modern Stoicism website for more information on the conference.

Over the past year there have been lots of free talks and events on Stoicism held in Toronto and we’re planning to build on that in 2020 by setting up a regular monthly practice group, which anyone can join. We’ll also be having a variety of other talks and workshops on Stoicism in the lead up to the main conference.

So far we’ve had talks about Stoicism and love, Stoicism and anger, and general introductions to the subject. During the year ahead, we’re hoping to focus on developing a format that will allow newcomers to feel welcome while providing regular participants with a reason to keep coming back by including varied content from reading and discussing Stoic texts to group contemplative practices. We’d love your input and look forward to seeing you there.

Staying Connected

The first step is the creation of several social media accounts to help everyone stay in touch. Join us on as many of the channels below as you want, so that you don’t miss out on any information about Stoicism in Toronto or the surrounding area.

In the Press

Introducing The Aurelius Foundation by John Sellars

At Stoicon-X in London last October we had a short presentation introducing The Aurelius Foundation, a new non-profit organization led by Justin Stead. I first met Justin around six months earlier, when he attended a weekend course on Stoicism led by Christopher Gill and myself. Justin was already well versed in Stoicism and had been developing the idea for the foundation for a while. Since then, Justin and I have met up a number of times to progress things further, culminating in his presentation at Stoicon-x. In the presentation Justin outlined his vision for this new venture:

  • The VISION of the Aurelius Foundation is to increase awareness and to share the principles of Stoic philosophy based on the four cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Courage in the pursuit of happiness.
  • The foundation endeavours to share this philosophy to help young people consider how they might plan their journey through life and support their considerations of how to live a life that contributes to the greater good.
  • The foundation is dedicated to youth and youth development through the education of higher principles and values of stoic philosophy to bring positive and constructive change through their life contributions to improve upon the many challenges in the world today.

Justin’s presentation generated lots of interest and discussion, and the whole thing was all the more intriguing because there wasn’t any further information available at that point. Well, now there is. It now has a website up and running at where people can sign up for regular updates.

More importantly, the foundation’s first event is now planned for Friday 6th March in London. This event will be an opportunity for people to learn more about the basic ideas behind Stoicism and to hear from people who apply Stoicism in a variety of personal and business contexts – from professional sport to prisons to business and finance. (I’ll be presenting in the morning, setting out the central ideas in Stoic ethics and talking about Marcus Aurelius.)

The goal of the event is to offer guidance and support for people at the outset of their adult and professional lives in the 18 to 30 age group. It hopes to bring together university students, recent graduates, and young entrepreneurs in order to foster useful networks for the future. If you fall into this age group, or know someone who does, then this might be of interest.

The all-day event – completely free – will be in central London (W1). Refreshments will be provided throughout the day. In order to register for a place, visit

The Stoic – February 2020

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 Every Moment’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber, Jeff Rout, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here


  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Being a Stoic Every Moment of the Day                
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. The Golden Rule of Stoicism                                                                    
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. A Stoic Cyclist: When People Behave Badly on the Road                 
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Play Your Given Roles Well                                                                            
  • KAI WHITING. Stoicism and the Pursuit of Happiness                                                      
  • SHARON LEBELL. Stoic response: Caring for the  Community                                           
  • FLORA BERNARD. Being Grateful for What we Learned From Others                                  
  • JEFF ROUT. Cultivating True Friendships            

Stoicism for Something Bad by Mary Braun

John (not his real name, details changed) hates his job. He is healthy and comes in every few months to talk about getting off his anti-depressant. He thinks his boss is a jerk who makes him do demeaning things that should really be the job of the newer people on the team. He makes more than he thinks he could anywhere else because he’s been at this job a long time. Maybe, he thinks, his boss is trying to make him quit so he can be replaced with a cheaper, younger new hire. He wants to quit his job. He doesn’t want to take a decrease in income. Quit. Stay. Quit. Stay. He explains both points to me every time he comes in.

He’s so depressed he doesn’t do much besides watch TV when he comes home from work. He doesn’t mountain bike, which he used to love and he’s made no progress on that genealogy project he’s been talking about for a decade. He’s stuck. Clearly, the meds aren’t working sufficiently for him. We’ve changed them a couple times and that makes no difference. He’s tried therapy with three different therapists and that doesn’t seem to help. This is the type of patient to whom I suggest Stoicism.

Stoicism is not medicine, and I am reluctant to suggest it to anyone who seems to have an active medical issue. The idea of my patient going to the emergency room for treatment that I could have given them in the office if I hadn’t been too busy suggesting they give Stoicism a try is appalling. I’m a doctor, not a philosopher. I am competent to diagnose pneumonia, but am I competent to suggest or teach philosophy?

On the other hand, I think Stoicism works and would help a patient like John. Is it compassionate to withhold it? Just like, I don’t need to be a surgeon to diagnose appendicitis, I don’t need to be a philosopher to diagnose “needing a life philosophy.” But, if I’ve diagnosed his problem as “needing a life philosophy,” suggested he start exploring life philosophies, and then another doctor makes him better by giving him a pill that I could have prescribed, would he be justified to be upset with me?

A doctor’s business is care of the body, and my official title is “health care provider.” We can define “health” as broadly as we like, but I do not think it can be expanded enough to include “needing a life philosophy” and, yet, I see people who are suffering for lack of one. One of the ways I solve this problem is to have philosophy books in my exam rooms and to run late. It used to work better. Now that everyone has an iphone, I find people are more likely to be watching cat videos than taking advantage of a chance to read William Irvine for free.

Another of the ways I solve this problem is to preface anything I say about Stoicism by saying, “I am telling you this, not as your doctor, but as a fellow suffering human being.” These are my credentials for philosophy teaching. Sometimes life sucks and I’ve had to cope, too.

I have to prioritize what we are going to talk about with every patient. It is rare that I get to things like would you like a shingles vaccine and even rarer that I get to “wear your seatbelt.” I feel that I cannot help my patients with their existential issues until all of their physical issues have been addressed and yet sometimes the existential issues are driving the physical issues.

If I have a patient who is not healthy physically, I feel obliged to spend all of our precious time together talking about traditional medical topics. By coming to see me, my patient has declared in which realm they think their problem lies. If their teeth were troubling them, they’d see a dentist. If their soul was troubling them, a chaplain. At least in theory, if my patients were seeking a life philosophy, they would be at the philosopher’s office. Since they have come to a doctor’s office, we talk about their body, not philosophical issues.

Because of this, the rare healthy may get an inoculation of Stoicism from me. The unhealthy, who would benefit more from it, do not. The patient who would benefit the very most from a discussion of Stoicism rarely gets even a homeopathic dose of it from me. He (or she) is one who has recently been diagnosed with Something Bad. Having Something Bad means that now one probably knows what is going to kill one and using Google, one can easily find how long before 50% of the patients with one’s very own diagnosis die. Examples of Something Bad are: acute leukemia, metastatic colon cancer, severe COPD, or Lewy Body Dementia. There are plenty of others. A diagnosis of Something Bad challenges one’s life philosophy like little else.

Having your philosophical techniques honed before your doctor says “I don’t like the feel of this lymph node,” or “Let’s get a biopsy of that shadow on your chest xray” works better than scrambling around while you’re waiting, at home, awake at 2 am, for the results. If you haven’t gotten your diagnosis of Something Bad (yet), let’s stop wasting time! If however, you have recently been told you have Something Bad, do not despair. These techniques are just what one doctor wishes she could order and they will start helping you immediately.

The Dichotomy of Control

A common starting place for Stoic reading is Epictetus’ Enchiridion which opens with “Some things are in our control and others not.” Because there are two options, it is called the dichotomy of control: thing are under one’s control or they are not under one’s control.

Having Something Bad is not under one’s control. Some Bad Diagnoses have risk factors which are under our control: smoking, sun tanning, or excessive drinking, for example. However, which person with the risk factor gets the disease and which doesn’t is not under our control. Every smoker, regardless of their level of smoking knows a smoker who smoked more and died at an old age from something completely unrelated to smoking. “It’s not fair. How come they didn’t get lung cancer and I did?” Every cardiac patient who eats well and jogs daily also knows a dozen obese people much older than him who have not exercised since their youth and who do not have cancer. Certainly, there are risk factors, but who gets a particular Bad Diagnosis and when is a matter that is not under our control.

Bill Irvine uses the idea of a trichotomy of control (some things are partially under my control). I happen not to find this extra division helpful, but some people do. I would grant that sometimes having Something Bad is sometimes partially under my control, but certainly not fully. Whether or not I smoke is under my control, but whether or not I get lung cancer, regardless of how much I smoked, is not.

I observe that people who remember that getting their Bad Diagnosis is out of their control tend to do better. “Getting lung cancer was out of my control. I have it. The more energy I waste in thinking about why I got lung cancer, the less I will have available for figuring out what to do about it.”

When I consider my own history, I can feel very upset that my mother died at 39. Why did she get such a bad diagnosis? On the other hand, I can recall that I have taken care of children with cancer who died before graduating from high school. Why was she spared this fate, a precondition for my very existence?

An exercise that I find helpful is to turn “Why me?” around into “Why not me?” Whenever I wonder “Why me? Why did my mother die when I was seven?” I can challenge myself with “When my mother died is out of my control. Why was I lucky enough to have my mom for seven years? Plenty of women die in childbirth. This was equally out of my control.”


A very easy step from “Why not me?” is to gratitude. Continuing the personal example above, I am grateful my mom was alive for my first seven years.

If you wonder how important the classical Stoics thought gratitude was, read the first book of Meditations. Marcus lists people and situations he is grateful about. This goes on for page after page. 

I do find that patients who are more grateful are happier. There is research supporting this that you can google easily.

If you have just gotten a Bad Diagnosis and wants to start developing a gratitude practice, consider what getting your diagnosis exactly a year ago would have meant for you. Consider what getting it during an earlier season of your life would have been like. It may come easily to you to be grateful that you did not get your diagnosis as you were helping plan your child’s wedding last year. Perhaps you will simply feel gratitude for the ensuing year of everyday experiences you have had and the bigger store of wisdom and coping skills you have attained.

Another easy way to identify things you are grateful for is to consider the things you will be saddest to let go of whenever you die. Those are, in all likelihood, things you are grateful to have now.

Fasting, Taking Cold Showers, and Other Tough-Guy Techniques

The Stoics, and especially their philosophical cousins the Cynics, emphasized trials of doing without various niceties of life to help one recognize how few the true needs are. They would fast for a while or eat only lentils, sleep on the ground, or do without servants. One would be able to recognize that, while a soft bed is comfy, it’s not at all required. Gratitude for that soft bed would come more naturally. Whether or not you sleep on whatever bed you have is completely under your control, unlike your Bad Diagnosis. The practices build on each other naturally.

Having practice with what is essential and what is not can be helpful when one is called upon to make medical decisions. The treatment of Something Bad may require one to reclassify some bodily functions from essential to non-essential. It can be surprising to learn which of the things you thought you required prior to getting your diagnosis is actually nice, but not necessary. Your disease may ask you “what is life without the nicety of a functioning anal sphincter?” And you will have to answer in order to choose your treatment path.

You will have to make decisions in coping with Something Bad. Some doctors disagree with me, but I think it is helpful to notice when there is a choice to be made and to be explicit that one has made a choice. If you have a diagnosis of Something Bad, you have likely made some choices already. Most people with Something Bad have chosen to work up their symptoms. Some people with incredibly severe symptoms prefer not to know more and do not take the steps you may have taken to get your diagnosis. Or maybe you opted to have a mammogram. Not everyone does. Chances are good you’ve made a number of choices already. Chances are good you have many, many more choices yet to make.

Patients will frequently come to me and say, “I have no choice. The oncologist says I have to do this medication or surgery or radiation treatment.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You do have a choice! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! It’s your body! What the cancer doctor is saying is that if you do this treatment, it will give you an increased likelihood of living longer, or better. You are deciding (or are allowing the cancer doctor to decide for you) that the nuisance, pain, discomfort, nausea, whatever of this treatment are worth the likely benefit. Because you are making this choice, you really are in control. You are not in control of what benefit you actually get from the treatment or how bad the side effects are for you, but it’s your decision to do the treatment.

My observation is that people who realize that they made a choice are less disturbed by their symptoms. Yes, I have not been able to eat for three days, but that is a side effect of this chemo. I chose this chemo knowing it would be tough because it would give me a better chance of living longer.

Some people decide that the potential to live longer is not worth the loss of function it would require. Some people decide that it is. Having been the one to make that decision for themselves, however, makes the suffering which ensues from whichever choice they have made much more tolerable. The Stoic practice of finding out how much one can do without can help inform these decisions. Sometimes how little one needs to be happy is a shock.

Once I took care of a young woman who would die soon if she didn’t accept being fed through her veins. She and her husband had owned a restaurant together. Eating and drinking had been such an important part of her life that she was not sure that life would hold any meaning if it continued beyond the point where she could eat and drink. She said no. Her husband begged her to try, however, so she did. The next time I saw her, she was beaming. “It is so intimate to have him hook me up every night and give me what I need. I love it. It has brought us closer.” She lived another very happy, very intimate six months.

Something Bad will demand that you consider what delicacies of life are actually essential. It may be that you will determine that life without functioning bowels or bladder or eating or walking or seeing is actually perfectly acceptable. Or it may be that you will decide such a life is not acceptable. 

Stoics may take cold showers, but patients with Something Bad are cutting to the bone. They often discover that very basic things healthy people consider essentials are actually niceties.

Premeditatio Malorum

People often identify Premeditatio Malorum as the distinctive Stoic practice. The Stoic imagines their fear (my cancer will progress) in as great a detail as they can tolerate (I will be unable to control my bowels, I’ll have to use a bag, I’ll be too weak to take care of it myself, my family will have to do it for me, I’ll be so embarrassed) and then considers this state in light of their basic virtue (will I still be able to be wise, just, courageous, and equanimous in this state? Clearly, I would be.

The opportunities to practice these virtues would be multiplied, not diminished. Thus my basic value is not decreased.) Not all patients would view the maintenance of virtue as the thing that keeps their life worth living, but the question one asks can be adapted for what is important to the individual doing the exercise. The practice remains very valuable if one remembers to do the whole practice and doesn’t allow one’s self to start in the middle or get side tracked before the conclusion.

This first step is not a Stoic step. Starting here will allow you to adapt the exercise for your own belief system, if it is a non-Stoic belief system. If one is a Stoic, one believes that virtue is the only good. Being virtuous is what gives one’s life meaning. If one does not believe this, the work starts here. The beginning step is to figure out what one’s deepest hope is, or possibly what one feels one specifically offers to the universe. For some people this can be accessed as what gives their life meaning. If I were doing this practice by myself, I might write the answers down on an index card. These deep issues are where you’re going ultimately. If this seems like too abstract an idea for your life, keep reading anyway. Give me a chance to bring it down to the concrete and accessible. We’ll get there. I have helped people with all kinds of belief systems with this exercise. I bet you’ll find it helpful, too.

The thing about having Something Bad is that you know Bad Things are coming. You are quite likely to die from Something Bad and in fairly short order. This fact—death is in sight—sits at the back of the mind of every patient with Something Bad. Every patient I’ve ever met does the “identify your fear” part of Premeditatio Malorum instinctively. Going the next step and determining that their virtue, or whatever gives their life meaning, would not be affected by the losses they are imagining is what makes this practice special. Doing the middle steps only can get people into trouble and the patients that I see who are having the hardest time are often those who get stuck, wandering in the fear part of this practice.

If I happen upon a patient who is suffering because they have started down this path and gotten lost, I will spend the time with them to get them unstuck, even if it means I will be running late for the patients who come after them. This is very important work to do. Patients who are stuck here have imagined the thing they are most afraid of in great detail. I ask them to look at it and listen to what they say. Starting with the first step “what makes life meaningful to you?” would be greeted with derision or possibly anger. But that is what I am trying to figure out with the hurting person in front of me.

People will often tell me things like, “I worry how my kids will grow up without me to watch over them.” (Their worry might be can my kids grow up well without me? or it might be how will my kids survive the viciousness of the world? or it might be will my kids feel the abandonment of my death so acutely that they will be unable to trust others in the future?) Sometimes I hear “I don’t want to burden my loved ones with cleaning me up when I can’t control my bowels any more.” (Their question is something like “Will my family still love me if I am helpless or disgusting?” Or it might be “Do people love me only because I am strong and independent?”) I try to explore these things to learn what is the deepest belief or wish. Oftentimes, the patient cannot put words to it themself. I take my best stab at what it might be and then wander around with them until by a change in their demeanor I can tell we’re close.

Stoics find it helpful to realize that they will still be able to be virtuous even if their worst fear comes to pass. Christians could gain comfort from premeditatio malorum by recalling that they can still love Jesus even if their worst fears come to pass. Often there is a deeply held belief like “If I were a good mother, I would find a way to keep from dying,” that is causing pain. It can be tough to find, but doing this work will help ultimately.

The final step in premeditatio malorum is to consider what impact on one’s deepest hope is caused by the fears that one is ruminating upon. For the woman who believes “if I were a good mother, I’d find a way to keep from dying,” I would concentrate on helping her find ways to be a good mother after her death (writing letters or other means of posthumous communication, perhaps). For the person who is worried about who will help guide their children after their death, we might identify people who could help and figure out if giving her children this list or talking to the potential helpers or some other action would be most helpful. For the person who wondered if he’d be loved in his weakened state, we’d consider times that others were loved when they were weak, perhaps, or possibly an open conversation with the patient’s family about what her he was likely to need, what they thought they would be able to do that their abilities have nothing to do with their love for him, and where else they might get help would likely ensue.

After we have identified the painful belief, visited the worst fear in great detail, figured out what is essential to do, figured out that we have control over at this point and made some plans to do those things, I circle back and try to help the patient see that the thing they were most in fear of is not a threat. Usually they have figured this out for themselves already.

Call Things After Their True Natures

One of the funny places in the Meditations is where Marcus describes sex as friction followed by mucous. The technique of describing things prosaically can be helpful when one has Something Bad. “A single cell has decided its chances are better if it goes it alone,” “They’ll put a little tube into my kidney that will poke out my back and drain my urine directly into a bag,” “I’m done breastfeeding babies, so those parts have outlived their utility.”

Meditate on Your Mortality

Stoicism emphasizes the reality that we are all well on our way to death. Really meditating on this requires a certain amount of courage as well as imagination for the average person. A Bad Diagnosis sets one’s imagination on fire and provides the courage needed to get started. It is much easier to always be aware of the fact that I am dying if I know there is only a fifty percent chance I’ll be alive in five years. Prioritizing one’s life as though one is going to be dead soon tends to produce decisions oriented towards the deeper desires. Remembering that one will be dead soon tends to cause one to consider how one will be remembered by loved ones after one’s death. Acting in a way that seems likely to cause good memories in the future is also likely to cause a better today. Thus, the person with the Bad Diagnosis benefits from regarding their imminent death.

Different people have different hopes for the time around their death. I hope yours is as easy and as meaning filled as you would like it to be. My observation is that these practices help when you get a Bad Diagnosis. And, what is Life but a universally fatal condition? What diagnosis could be worse than Life? Our Bad Diagnosis is coming soon enough. Let’s get practicing.

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.