Human Nature and Stoic Development by Brittany Polat

As practicing Stoics, the most pressing question for many of us is how to become good people and live satisfying, meaningful lives. But the path to Stoic enlightenment is not always clear. How do we get from who we are today to who we want to be? How do we become happy and fulfilled? And how is becoming virtuous going to help us with that anyway? In this essay I’d like to build on ancient Stoic ideas about human nature and development (oikeiosis), linking Stoic development to a conception of oneness that I believe will help us live flourishing lives.[i]

The ancient Stoics believed that nature—our human nature and the world we live in—has provided us with what we need to reach our potential as excellent people.[ii] For one thing, we instinctually act in ways that promote our own well-being. As young children our instinct is to seek things that keep us alive and give us comfort: food and the warmth and security of a loving caregiver.

But as we grow, our awareness of ourselves changes. We seek out new opportunities, and we have a strong desire to learn, understand, and make sense of the world. We develop our own identities as people, and we become more consciously aware of what is expected of us and who we want to be. We eventually learn that our well-being depends not on material comforts but on how well we fulfill our role as a mature human.[iii] Some people are confused about the role of a fully mature person; they might think the goal is to become rich or powerful or popular. But Stoics know the only way to find long-lasting inner peace and happiness is to live in agreement with nature, which includes living in agreement with our human nature (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1).

And what might that nature be? Human nature is complex and multi-faceted, but one of our defining features is our extreme sociability. We always live in groups, and the well-being of the individual depends on the well-being of the group. Our families, communities, cities, and nations in most cases existed long before we were born, and many of them will exist long after we are gone.[iv] We are primed and programmed to live with, cooperate with, and take care of others. Not only that, but our very survival as a species depends on are instinctual care for our young. Humans have by far the longest childhood, and require intensive care for the longest time, of any species that we know of. Our instincts as adults prompt us to love and care for our young, and our instincts as children predispose us from a very young age to cooperate with and care for others.[v] We are the social species par excellence.

If we want to reach our potential as humans—thereby becoming happy and fulfilled—we must become excellent at doing what humans do best: living with other people and using our advanced cognitive capacities (and uniquely human self-awareness) to understand the nature of things. The ancient Stoics called this natural progression toward virtue “oikeiosis“. Oikeiosis literally means something like familiarization, affiliation, or appropriation. It is the process by which you become familiar with your true nature. Your nature as a young child dictated that you depended on adults for survival; your nature as a maturing young person dictated that you started to become independent, acquire responsibility, and develop a mature awareness of yourself and the world. When you become familiar with your nature as a rational and social adult, you will devote yourself to fulfilling that nature, i.e., becoming virtuous. You will grow into the person you are meant to be.

Becoming familiar with our true nature—you might call it fully developing our humanity—requires understanding who we really are in relation to other people. The ancient Stoics spoke of our relationship to others as a part-to-whole relationship: we are individual parts of the same body, we are branches on the same tree, or we are all citizens of the same city.[vi] This communal attitude is foundational to developing an accurate understanding of life and thereby becoming virtuous. If you persist in believing that your own good is separate from the good of other people, you can’t really become virtuous because you hold a very mistaken view of things.

But once you understand that your own good is identical to the good of the whole, your perspective (and therefore your opinions, motivations, desires, aversions, and actions) completely shifts. You realize that what benefits those around you also benefits you because you are inextricably linked in human companionship (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.22, 15-19; Seneca, Letters on Ethics, 48.2).

This shift in perspective, from self as isolated entity to self as part of the whole, is social oikeiosis. It requires not just a simple recognition that we are all inextricably linked but a change in our identity or sense of self. It’s quite easy to admit our interdependencies on a superficial level without allowing it to change our attitude or behavior. But we will only properly understand our nature and our role in life when we re-draw the boundaries of “who I am” to include other people.[vii]

Another way of putting it is that we are developing a sense of oneness with the people around us. Virtue ethicist and Asian philosophy scholar Philip J. Ivanhoe has identified oneness as a “relational view about the nature of the self” that achieves “a more expansive conception of the self, a self that is seen as intimately connected with other people, creatures, and things in ways that typically conduce to the greater advantage, well-being, and happiness of all concerned” (Ivanhoe, p. 3).

It seems to me that this expansive conception of the self describes the endpoint of social oikeiosis in Stoicism. Consider one of the most famous ancient explications of social oikeiosis, the concentric circles of Hierocles. His description seems to be a sort of exercise for how we might come to see our individual selves as one part of a larger whole: we first identify with our close family members, then our extended family, then friends and neighbors, then fellow citizens. We expand our notion of self from our narrow personal interests to comprehend everyone around us, eventually including everyone in the world. I think the idea here is to extend our understanding of ourselves as one part of the greater whole, which means expanding our sense of self.

As Ivanhoe points out, oneness has great value to contemporary ethics: it is the basis of several current philosophies of environmental ethics, and some moral psychologists see it as the motivation for altruism (in contrast to the dominant empathy-altruism approach).[viii] I think both of these are relevant for modern Stoics. For me personally, thinking about altruism in terms of oneness rather than empathy addresses some of the tensions at the heart of social oikeiosis.

This approach suggests that we help other people not because we empathize with their plight but because we feel a sense of oneness with them. As Stoics, we do not actively empathize with others about perceived misfortunes because we have a different idea of what misfortune is. Yet we still care and feel affection for them. Our thoughts and actions are motivated not by emotional reactions but by our rational understanding that we are actually parts of the same whole, which leads to a different kind of altruism.[ix]

One further reason for linking Stoic social oikeiosis to the oneness hypothesis is the close association oneness has with “metaphors of natural organic unity, for example about how a healthy person is connected to the various parts of her own well-functioning body” (Ivanhoe, p. 2). These metaphors are a well-known feature of Stoicism. Consider Marcus Aurelius’ memorable comparison of people acting against the common good to limbs severed from a body:

If you have ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a head which has been cut off, lying some distance away from the rest of the body, you will have some idea of what a person makes of himself, as far as he can, when he is unwilling to consent to what comes to pass and cuts himself off from others or when he does something that is against the common interest. By so acting you have, as it were, cast yourself loose from the natural unity; for you were born to be a part of it, and you have cut yourself off. (Meditations, 8.34)

Neo-Confucians,[x] whose ideas inspired Ivanhoe’s oneness hypothesis, express their ideas about oneness in similar terms. For neo-Confucians as well as Stoics, we are so connected and interdependent with the people around us that we form, metaphorically, one body. Here is the neo-Confucian philosopher Cheng Hao explaining why the term “unfeeling” is used to describe both numb body parts and selfish people:

Medical books describe paralysis in the hands or feet as being ‘numb or unfeeling’. This is a perfect way to describe the condition. People with feeling (i.e., benevolent people) regard heaven, earth, and the myriad things as one body; there is nothing that is not a part of themselves. Since they regard all things as themselves, is there anywhere their concern will fail to reach? If things are not part of oneself, naturally they will have no influence upon one. This is like hands or feet being unfeeling. (Cheng Hao, cited in Ivanhoe, pp. 47-48)

Stoicism is certainly not identical to Confucianism, even if both philosophies share a similar outlook on nature, virtue, and development. But I do find it very instructive to think about where the Confucians headed with their corporal metaphors, and where we as modern Stoics might end up. Although they “saw a deep identity between themselves and the world” (Ivanhoe, p. 146),

Neo-Confucians don’t lose the self in or wholly merge the self with the world; they maintain the hierarchy of concern characteristic of Confucians in every age…So while we are one with every aspect of the universe, there is a hierarchy of concern, a core and periphery to the universal self, modeled on the natural hierarchy among the parts of our physical bodies. (Ivanhoe, pp. 49, 50)

The ancient Confucians were challenged by a rival philosophical school, the Mohists—and neo-Confucians were challenged by Buddhist thought—to clarify and defend their position on the privilege of family relationships. While Mohists argued for complete impartiality toward all people, Confucians traditionally maintained that we owe our family members and close associates more than we owe to more distant associates or strangers. Likewise, strict forms of Buddhism require giving up all attachments, including to family and friends (Ivanhoe, p. 47), but:

While several neo-Confucians argued that we are one body with heaven, earth, and the myriad things, they were eager to emphasize that we care to different degrees and in different ways for the various parts of our bodies. While one’s heart, lungs, toes, skin, fingernails, and hair all are equally parts of the unity that is one’s body and one cares for them all, one does not care for them equally or in the same way. (Ivanhoe, p. 47)

While oneness does require us to expand our sense of self to care for everyone in the world, that does not mean we must do for strangers exactly as we would do for our parents or children. Perhaps there are a few saints and Cynics in the world who are able to give up all their social attachments and truly live for all of humanity. But this is not an attainable or desirable goal for most people. For most of us, the goal of social oikeiosis is not impartiality but rather “an expanded sense of self that embraces the other and brings it, to varying degrees, within one’s conception of oneself” (Ivanhoe, p. 71).

It’s a daunting task, but the ancient Stoics seemed to believe we are equipped for it by nature. People often get distracted from their true nature by “the persuasiveness of things” and “the teaching of their associates,” according to Chrysippus.[xi] Unfortunately, we have even more of those distractions today than ever before. But for better or worse, human nature hasn’t changed in the past 2,000 years, and I think we are still naturally equipped to grow toward virtue. Through observation, study, reflection, attention, and constant practice, we can learn to see the world (and our place in it) clearly and accurately. And by pushing ourselves to align our well-being with the well-being of all other humans, we can develop an expansive sense of self that (eventually) encompasses everyone. In so doing, we will become familiarized to other people and to our own nature, eventually resulting in the long-lasting happiness of eudaimonia. As Ivanhoe (p. 102) puts it:

When one develops one’s natural needs, desires, inclinations, and capacities in ways that harmonize and unify one’s inner psychological states and fits these into a grand natural order that facilitates successful action in the world, and when one reaches the point where one regularly and spontaneously achieves these dual aims, one feels that one is one’s element, has found one’s home, and is performing one’s proper role in the world. Such action generates a special feeling of joy or happiness not only for those who behave this way but also for those who observe such behavior.

[i] I am not a scholar of ancient Stoicism, and I am not trying to reconstruct the ancient Stoic system. My goal is to build on what the ancients have left us to construct a system that works for many of us today.

[ii] The purpose of this essay is not to discount or argue about ancient Stoic conceptions of the divine. For those interested in the relationship between oikeiosis and ancient Stoic theology, here is A.A. Long in Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, 2002, Oxford University Press, p. 182: “The official starting point of early Stoic ethics—the concept from which the school’s account of life in accordance with nature began—was ‘appropriation’ (oikeiôsis): that is to say, the instincts for self-preservation and for sociability that the school’s founders regarded as basic to every normal person’s innate motivations, and as empirically verifiable. The providential plan of God or Nature is emphatically at work in oikeiôsis, but you do not need to know that in order to oikeiôsis plausible as a basic datum of human nature; for an agnostic would be hard pressed to dispute the fact that human beings, like other animals, are endowed with instincts of the kind that Stoics attribute to them. Theology mainly enters traditional Stoicism not as the beginning or even as a part of ethics but rather as the culmination of physics—the study of nature.”

[iii] Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[iv] Philip J. Ivanhoe, Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All Connected, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 52.

[v] For a very interesting theory on how our social nature shapes our other advanced cognitive abilities (language, abstract mental representations, cooperative planning, etc.), I highly recommend Michael Tomasello’s Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, Harvard University Press, 2019.

[vi] Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard University Press, 2001; Gretchen Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 53.

[vii] Just to be clear, this recognition of unity, or the process of social oikeiosis more generally, does not change a Stoic’s view of what is ‘up to me’ and what is ‘not up to me.’ Even a person’s own body is considered external and outside the sphere of choice, and other people remain firmly in this category. Social oikeiosis does not remove a person’s autonomy or moral responsibility.

[viii] The empathy-altruism approach suggests that people are motivated to act kindly toward others based on feelings of empathy for the other person’s condition.

[ix] See Ivanhoe, pp. 70 and 89-93, for more on oneness and altruism.

[x] Neo-Confucianism was a flowering of Confucian thought in China from around the 11th through 16th centuries.

[xi] Margaret Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 154-158.

Brittany Polat is the author of the recent book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged. You can follow her blog at Apparent Stoic or on Twitter @brittanypolat.

Justus Lipsius, Godfather of Christian Neostoicism by Max Longley

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Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can be considered the founder of Renaissance and early modern Neostoicism (or Neo-Stoicism). Not only did he give the fullest account of ancient Stoicism which had been given since the classical age, he inspired a generation of readers and students with the philosophy. He sought to reconcile the teachings of the pagan Stoics with Christianity. Like his hero and model Seneca, Lipsius came in for his share of criticism for not living up to his own Stoic ideals.

Justus Lipsius (his name is a Latinization of his Dutch name, Josse Lips) was born in 1547 in Overijse in modern Belgium. He studied in Cologne with the Jesuits, but his parents withdrew him and he went to the University of Louvain (Leuven) near his birthplace. He studied the Latin classics and became a well-respected philologist through Latin works published at a young age.

Spanish forces under the infamous Duke of Alba were wreaking havoc in the area, and Lipsius decided it was time to pack his bags. During a couple of unsettled years he came back to Louvain to obtain a degree in law and promptly left again. After an unsatisfying stint with the Catholic Emperor in Vienna, he ended up in Jena, Germany. There, for a couple of years, Lipsius taught at the university in that Lutheran city. On certain formal occasions he gave public addresses for the university in which he praised the Lutherans and denounced the Catholics. His main focus, though, was on his scholarship. He sparked jealousy among faculty colleagues, but – in a pattern which would follow throughout his career – he attracted students who became attached to him and his ideas. This was the beginning of a network of former students, many of whom became influential, with whom he corresponded and who spread his ideas. Lipsius married at this time but never had children – his paternal solicitude was spent on his students.

During a sojourn in Cologne (where he met his wife), Lipsius published a new edition of Tacitus, the Roman historian. The latter publication helped cement his reputation in the international “republic of letters” – the community of humanist scholars throughout Europe who shared a common devotion to classical learning which – they hoped – transcended religious and national barriers.

Lipsius made another move in 1578, this time to a new University at Leiden, in Holland. Holland was one of the rebellious Dutch provinces fighting to be free of Spain, and the University of Leiden was founded amid the good wishes of the rebels. Not only was Lipsius appointed to a professorship, he served several terms as rector, indicating how valuable an acquisition the renowned scholar was to university just finding its feet in a beleaguered republic.

Shortly after he was established in Leiden, he became seriously ill, and composed a prayer asking God to strengthen him as he faced possible death. He recovered and published a book on the subject of constancy – this time constancy in the face of war and turmoil, not personal ills. The book, De Constantia (Concerning Constancy), sold quite well. Inspired by the ideals of the Stoic authors Lipsius had studied, this small Latin book defended a Christian humanist form of the Stoic ideal.

“I have always set my sails wholly toward the one haven of a tranquil mind,” wrote Lipsius (Constancy, 13). He boasted that he was the first to write about “consolation in public disasters” (Constancy, 13). Lipsius also added what might seem a disclaimer – he was writing this book for himself, for his own “well-being.” The implication seems to be that while Lipsius knows the value of constancy, he hasn’t yet been able to obtain it and needs to urge it upon himself (Constancy, xix-xx, 13).

De Constantia is in the form of a dialogue. The good lines are given to an older scholar, Charles Langius of Liège, whose fictional persona imparts wisdom to the Lipsius character. Lipsius puts himself in the book as a young man fearful for the fate of his beloved Netherlands and seeking consolation in his distress.

 The Langius character gives Stoic advice to the young man – “you must not flee your country, Lipsius, but your emotions.” (Constancy, 19) “Constancy I here designate an upright and unmoved vigor of mind that is neither uplifted nor cast down by outward or chance occurrences.” (Constancy, 27, 29, emphasis in original)

Langius argues that Lipsius is not motivated by a pure idealistic concern for the fate of his country, but by a more specific concern about the personal consequences of the war in the Netherlands. If his is a truly disinterested humanitarianism, why isn’t Lipsius also concerned about wars in other, more remote countries? In fact Lipsius should consider his citizenship to be in “the entire world” (Constancy, 43), in good Stoic cosmopolitan fashion. Of course Lipsius should love his particular country – die for it if necessary – but he shouldn’t have a passionate attachment and misname it patriotism, giving his country the reverence owed to God and his parents. Indeed, Heaven is man’s “true ancestral country” (Constancy, 55).

Langius warns Lipsius not to be angry over public disasters, which are “dispatched and licensed by God.” Who is Lipsius – “[a] man, a shadow, dust” – to question God? (Constancy, 57, 63). God’s decrees will be carried out even against men who dare to resist them. Do not expect to be exempt from worldly trouble – mortality is characteristic of the whole created world. Even heavenly bodies can perish. Astronomers had recently found a supernova in the Cassiopeia constellation, which contradicted the previously-received wisdom about the permanence and stability of the heavens (Constancy, 67, 69). Change and death was everywhere in creation – even the heavens could not escape. One must meet this reality with firmness of mind. (Seneca, echoing earlier astronomical theories, claimed that “[t]he higher part of the universe” was “free from all disorder,” just like men’s minds should be (Seneca, “Anger,” 23)).

The universe is governed by “a firm and determined necessity of events” – said De Constantia – eternally foreknown by God (Constancy, 75). The “determined necessity” is Fate. Here, though, Lipsius was navigating difficult philosophical and theological waters. There was a widespread impression that Stoics taught the doctrine – heretical to Christians – that God was Himself bound by the same Fate which governed the universe (indeed, that God was in the universe). Stepping carefully through this minefield, Lipsius cited two false interpretations of fate – Astrological and Violent – and the true version of fate, which he simply called True Fate.

Astrological fate – man’s life being governed by the stars – was easily dismissed. Violent Fate was equally wrong – it was the blasphemous idea of a Fate so powerful that it controlled God himself as well as the voluntary choices of human beings. Some Stoic writings seemed to teach this unacceptable version of fate, while other Stoic writings taught “sounder” doctrines and did not run into the extremes of Violent Fate. Whatever his actual interpretation of Stoic ideas, Lipsius wanted to distance himself from the stereotypes which connected Stoicism to Violent Fate. Stoics had sought to defend “the majesty and Providence of God,” and if some of them had wandered into error, it was from their laudable zeal to free mankind from the vicissitudes of Fortune (Constancy, 79, 81, 83).

Then Lipsius came to True Fate, in its proper Stoic (and Neostoic) conception. True Fate does not bind God; it comes from God. It is “the eternal decree of Providence, which can no more be taken away from things than Providence itself.” God creates Fate while still leaving room for human free will: “He saw; He did not compel. He knew; he did not determine. He predicted; he did not prescribe.” Yet our free will comes in strict limits – “So it is in this fatal bark [ship] that bears us all along: our wills are permitted to run one way or another, not to turn the ship from its course or stop it.” (Constancy, 91, 93)

 Accepting Fate, not fighting against it, was key to constancy and tranquility. “There is no other escape from Necessity than to will whatever it compels” (Constancy, 97). But that is no excuse for fatalism – you should still help your country in its extremity – it might do good or might not, but the result is beyond one’s control.

Another thing which helps us to constancy is to examine the nature of what we believe to be evils. Events which seem on the surface to be the wrath of an angry God may instead be intended by God as “medications.” God can inflict such seeming evils directly – as with earthquakes and plagues – or he can make use of human instruments who believe they are doing evil but unknowingly work good ends – as with wars and oppression. Whether direct or indirect, these apparent evils are intended for good.

How can seeming evils be for our good? For one thing, God may be acting like a tough gym coach (a good Stoic metaphor) to “train” people in “endurance and virtue.” Toughened up by misfortune, men will be better able to endure the blows of Fortune. And the sight of good men enduring affliction will be a source of inspiration to others.

Adversities can also be sent by God as punishment. The people of the Netherlands had been too greedy and too pleasure-loving. God sent the war as a punishment for abusing His gift of liberty and by indulging in “license.” Lipsius (through Langius’ mouth) used the metaphor of the Persians who reportedly punished prominent offenders by whipping their robes and turbans (after removing them from their owners). By analogy, a person’s body and property could be compared to his turban and robes – “external things.” When God punishes us by attacking our persons or our wealth, He “does not touch us.” (Constancy, 135, 137). This metaphor was based on old Stoic doctrine on the irrelevance of externals.

With some trepidation, Lipsius ventured into another reason for constancy – the Stoic idea that everything God permits to happen is for the good of the universe as a whole, even if it seems harmful to an individual who forms a part of that universe.

Lipsius added some consolations for the seeming impunity and success of the wicked. The wicked always get punished, through internal pangs of conscience, through external punishment, or certainly through the eternal punishment which awaits unrepentant evildoers.

On Constancy then gave a brief discussion to the Stoic idea that it is our opinions of public events, not the events themselves, which generally cause us distress. Then Lipsius proceeded to give his version of reassurance to those enduring the war in the Netherlands: things weren’t as bad as they used to be. Citing histories of Greece and Rome, as well as Josephus’ history of the 1st-century Jewish Revolt, Lipsius gave casualty figures for wars, plagues, massacres, plundering, and excessive taxation of ancient times, which were greater than the losses suffered by the people of the Netherlands. Lipsius also invited contemplation of the evils of slavery in the classical world, rejoicing – prematurely, as it happens – that such a scourge did not exist in Christian lands. (One wonders how Lipsius would have addressed the modern reader, in light of the atrocities of the twentieth century.)

Lipsius’ Constancy was an international bestseller, getting translated into several languages. Dirck Coornhert, a civil-law notary and indefatigable religious controversialist, offered to bring out a Dutch translation, but Coornhert withdrew from the project when he wasn’t satisfied with Lipsius’ position on free will (the two men were close in their opinions, but not close enough for the very particular Coornhert). Lipsius found another Dutch translator. Illustrating the cross-border nature of the humanist project, an edition of Constancy was published in Spanish-occupied Antwerp. Readers elsewhere in Europe found the book spoke to their needs.

Lipsius carried out an extensive correspondence with intellectuals throughout Europe, both on the Catholic and Protestant sides of the religious divide. He published extensive editions of his correspondence, perhaps in emulation of Seneca who also published his “private” letters. To some of his Catholic correspondents in the southern Netherlands and Liège, Lipsius began dropping what could be seen as hits about coming back to Catholicism, and back to his youthful haunts in the now-Spanish southern Netherlands. His correspondents were eager to win him back to the Catholic faith, though one correspondent – Laevinius Torrentius, future bishop of Antwerp – was worried about conflicts between Stoicism and Christian orthodoxy. Torrentius pointed to the Stoics’ approval of suicide and alleged denial of life after death. Lipsius replied to criticism like this in later editions of Constancy, protesting that Christians could make use of the good parts of ancient philosophy. “I shall act as a philosopher, but a Christian philosopher” (Constancy, 5).

Then Lipsius embarked on another project which also produced a bestseller, Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae libri sex, or Politica for short. He also wrote a book on military affairs. The intended audience for these books were rulers – and their advisors and would-be advisors – in the centralized states then emerging in Europe. Lipsius dispensed a mixture of cynical advice and good-government prescriptions for a well-run state. Recommendations included well-trained citizen-armies (in lieu of ill-disciplined mercenaries of the sort who rampaged through the Netherlands during the war). Lipsius also envisioned popularly-elected “Censors” – modeled after the Censors of the ancient Roman Republic – who would issue non-binding public rebukes to people with bad moral habits. The censors would also double as tax assessors. Rulers were solemnly advised to hold to the same high moral standards which the censors would expect of the people – princes had to set a good example.

As it turned out, the most inflammatory part of the Politica concerned religion. Princes, wrote Lipsius, should require their subjects to adhere outwardly to the ceremonies of the religion of the country (but princes could not themselves redefine the content of a country’s traditional religion). Religious dissenters would be free to dissent in private so long as they externally conformed. For those who publicly advertised their dissent from the established religion, and tried to convert others to their dissenting views, the government’s response – using a phrase from Seneca – should be to “burn, cut” (ure, seca) to preserve the body politic. To Lipsius, open religious diversity in a country promoted sedition and war – a mainstream opinion in that era. In the Dutch Republic, for example, Calvinism was the established religion and the public practice of Catholicism was banned. In the southern (Spanish) Netherlands only Catholicism was allowed.

Evidence suggests that Lipsius’ own religious behavior was consistent with the ideas he preached. Lipsius was probably a member of the Family of Love, a religious sect popular among humanists. Members of the Family of Love – at least the branch Lipsius seems to have belonged to – believed in a minimalist, slimmed-down version of Christianity while holding no religious ceremonies of their own. Sect members attended worship service in the established church of whichever country they happened to live in. This not only sheds light on Lipsius’ Politica but on the ease with which he seemed to take on the official religious coloration of the different countries he lived in.

There were also Stoic precedents for the sort of public religious conformity Lipsius preached and practiced. As a youth, Seneca recalled in a letter to his friend Lucilius, he (Seneca) had adopted vegetarianism for philosophical reasons only to give it up at his father’s insistence, for fear of being mistaken for a follower of some banned foreign religion.

The religious discussion in the Politica provoked Dirck Coornhert. The self-taught Coornhert knew Latin, but unlike Lipsius wrote in Dutch for the public. Like Lipsius, Coornhert deplored the religious divisions of his time, but unlike Lipsius, Coornhert proposed the then highly-controversial solution of avoiding any persecution of Christians (or even of atheists).

In a book strongly denouncing the religious sections of the Politica, Coornhert tore into Lipsius. What had the Leiden scholar meant by the government upholding the traditional religion of the country – did he mean Catholicism? Wouldn’t Lipsius’ reasoning have justified the Spanish Inquisition in burning Protestants at the stake? This was not a theoretical question since the Spanish had shown themselves willing to do that very thing with Dutch Protestants, helping to provoke the revolt of the Dutch Republic. Lipsius’ reference to burning didn’t help matters. Was Lipsius sympathetic to the Republic’s Spanish enemy, which was at the time inflicting defeats on the Republican forces?

Coornhert was a celebrity in the Dutch Republic (if not necessarily a popular celebrity), and his attacks on Lipsius’ patriotism built up public pressure for an answer. Lipsius replied contemptuously to Coornhert – in Latin, of course – showering the impudent critic with insults and explaining that “burn, cut” was a medical metaphor, not an endorsement of the Spanish Inquisition. Private conscience must be respected, but no well-governed country could endure public religious dissent.

The authorities of Leiden and Holland feared that the conflict with Coornhert might prompt Lipsius to leave Leiden University, striking a blow at the prestige of the young institution and the endangered Republic in which it was situated. Officials denounced Coornhert and wooed Lipsius to stay, but it was too late. Lipsius obtained a medical leave of absence from Leiden, and in Easter 1591 he showed up at the Jesuit College in Mainz, Germany, and reconciled himself with the Catholic Church. Lipsius later said that his departure from Leiden was on account of “religion and honor” (religio et fama), referring to the fight with Coornhert.

Lipsius went back to the University of Louvain in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands and joined the faculty. He remained interested in the work of an exiled Spanish theologian who wanted to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. However, Lipsius was now identified with the Catholic cause – he proclaimed that he had never stopped being Catholic even while he was in Protestant lands (he denied authorship of the embarrassing anti-Catholic orations in Jena which his enemies dug up).

His health remaining a concern, Lipsius and a friend went to the mineral springs in Spa, near Liège. They fled from an incursion of soldiers from the Dutch Republic, now an enemy country due to Lipsius’ change of allegiance. Lipsius and his friend were able to leap over walls and fences and got away from the republican troops. (Perhaps Lipsius had been working at a literal gymnasium as well as a spiritual, Stoic one?)

Still seeking relief in his illness, Lipsius visited Halle, where there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. He believed that his prayers for healing had been successful, and he expressed his gratitude in a couple of ways. He hung his silver pen, with which he had allegedly written his great works, in the church of Halle near the shrine. A dedicatory poem accompanied the pen, immodestly listing the subjects he had written about with the pen – “promot[ing] Constancy,” “civic affairs,” “military matters,” “ancient times” – and he prayed that instead of winning “fleeting fame,” he gain “everlasting joy and life.”

Lipsius’ second tribute to the Virgin was a book about the healing miracles wrought at the shrine of Halle over several centuries, along with another book about miracles at another Marian shrine.

Was Lipsius’ conspicuous public piety merely a ruse? Was he still following the precepts of the Family of Love, hinted at in the Politica, of outward conformity to the official religion of whatever place he lived? Or had he developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary which brought in him a more sincere attachment to the Catholic Church? He certainly paid a price for his exhibitions of Catholic piety, in the form of personal attacks and backbiting. The English Stoic Joseph Hall was only one of many Protestants who mocked Lipsius for supposedly deserting philosophy for Catholic “superstition.”

His new allegiance also brought him new opportunities. In addition to accepting the post of royal Historiographer for the Spanish crown, he turned down offers of public office. He persuaded the Catholic censors to let him publish a revised edition of the Politica, agreeing to strengthen the emphasis on suppressing false religious opinions.

Now that his works could legitimately circulate in the Catholic world, Lipsius acquired a new audience among ruling-class Spaniards. Many ministers and ex-ministers of the crown either borrowed from the lessons of Politica or corresponded with Lipsius about court corruption. Lipsius wrote to a Spanish diplomat who was seeking a peace deal with England, the Dutch Republic’s ally. Lipsius hoped that a resolution of the Netherlands war was in the offing; in fact, Spain simply made a separate peace with England and pressed on with the war against the Dutch Republic.

During this time, Lipsius was preparing two final, monumental works. In 1604 came a comprehensive summary of the Stoic philosophy drawn from the available ancient sources. This became the most authoritative work on the subject until the twentieth century. As in Constancy, Lipsius tried to save as much of Stoicism as he could from Christian condemnation. Like Torrentius, he deplored the seeming Stoic obsession with suicide. On the subject of divine providence, however, Lipsius had overcome the reservations he expressed in Constancy and found that the Stoic and Christian conceptions of God and fate were compatible.

A year before his death, in 1605, Lipsius came out with an edition to Seneca’s prose works – again setting the standard for quite some time.

On his deathbed, Lipsius dedicated his fur-lined coat to Our Lady of Halle (“what old woman’s superstition is this?” privately fumed a Protestant fellow-scholar). Another deathbed scene was recounted by Lipsius’ executor, a friend – and of course former student – named Johannes Woverius. According to Woverius, someone sought to comfort Lipsius with Stoic philosophy, and Lipsius supposedly said “these things are vain,” then pointed to a crucifix as the real source of consolation. A couple other accounts of Lipsius’ death omit this alleged incident.

One final element of Lipsius’ legacy came after his death. The celebrated painter Peter Paul Rubens made a portrait representing Lipsius, in his fur-lined cloak, sitting alongside a couple of his philosophical companions and former students – the painter’s brother Philip and Woverius. Peter Paul Rubens (standing) is also in the picture, as is a bust of Seneca in an alcove above Woverius’ head. Rubens entitled his painting “The Four Philosophers.”

How can one write about constancy while continually switching from one religion, and one political allegiance, to another? Had he possessed modern analogies with which to justify himself, Lipsius may have compared himself to a surfer managing to stay atop his board in the face of wave after wave of fate. Through various political vicissitudes, he kept from falling off by skillfully shifting his position. This gave him the space to carry out his great project: imparting the wisdom of the ancients – especially the Stoics – to a world particularly in need of such wisdom. Lipsius’ students often became statesmen or public figures who were in a position to carry their teacher’s principles from the academy to the real world. At the end, it is possible that Lipsius was internally convinced of the truth of Catholicism as well as accepting it ni public, but this cannot be known for certain.

 Thanks in large part to Lipsius, Neostoicism was a flourishing movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then some philosophers re-examined Lipsius’ claims that Stoicism and Christianity could be harmonized. Unlike Lipsius, these philosophers decided that the Stoic conception of God was not adequate and that the philosophy did not allow for the immortality of the soul. Influential Christian philosophers dismissed Stoicism as practical atheism, similar to the “pantheism” of Spinoza. The French philosopher Diderot praised Stoicism for the same reason – a kiss of death from the Christian standpoint since Diderot was considered one of the forerunners of the anti-Christian French Revolution. When Stoicism had another revival in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, many of the new Stoics likewise downplayed the theistic elements of the philosophy.

Works Consulted

  • Marisa Bass, “Justus Lipsius and his silver pen,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes LXX (2007), pp. 157-194.
  • Christopher Brooke, “How the Stoics Became Atheists,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), pp. 387-402.
  • Theodore G. Corbett, “The Cult of Lipsius: A Leading Source of Early Modern Spanish Statecraft,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1975), pp. 139-152.
  • David Halsted, “Distance, Dissolution and Neo-Stoic Ideals: History and Self Definition in Lipsius,” Humanistica Lovaniensia, Vol. 40 (1991), pp. 262-274.
  • Theo Hermans, “Miracles in translation: Lipsius, Our Lady of Halle and two Dutch translations,” Renaissance Studies Vol. 29 No. 1 (2015), pp. 125-142.
  • Jill Kraye, “’Απάθεια and Προπάθειαι in Early Modern Discussions of the Passions: Stoicism, Christianity and Natural History,” Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (2012), pp. 230-253.
  • Halvard Leira, “Justus Lipsius, political humanism and the disciplining of 17th century statecraft,” Review of International Studies, (2008), 34, 669-692.
  • Lejay, Paul. “Justus Lipsius.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 4 Jun. 2020,
  • Justus Lipsius (R. V. Young, editor and translator), Justus Lipsius’ Concerning Constancy (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011).
  • Jan Machielsen, “Friendship and religion in the Republic of Letters: the return of Justus Lipsius to Catholicism (1591),” Renaissance Studies Vol. 27 No. 2 (2011), pp. 161-182.
  • Mark Morford, Stoics and Neostoics: Rubens and the Circle of Lipsius (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • John Sellars, “Stoic Fate in Justis Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 52, No. 4 (2014), pp. 653-674.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, translators), Letters on Ethics to Lucilius (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017),429-30.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (John Davie, editor and translator), “On Anger,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 18-52.
  • Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000).

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War, and numerous articles in print and online.

5 Steps to a More Tranquil Life by João Caldas

Peace of mind, who doesn’t want it? But there are always those problems bugging you, that make you stressed and unmotivated sometimes, and those can lead to some serious mental issues!

Sometimes the universe throws a curve ball that you weren’t expecting. It can be at a great moment, and turn out to be a minor setback or even life-changing. The fact is that the universe does not care about anything or anyone. Sounds harsh I know, but it’s the truth. Life’s full of setbacks, but they can only hurt you if you let them. If you choose to ignore what’s not in your control than their influence on you disappears.

I know it might sound very poetic, and maybe even sounds ridiculous to you, but make no mistake, this is no joke and it can help you. As a matter of fact, Stoicism is the ancient precursor of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), an immensely powerful tool to combat modern-day mental illnesses like stress, anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse.

Although a lifestyle completely based on Stoicism isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, there are steps you can take to help you live a more tranquil life. Here, I’ll be giving you a few steps that sound easy to do, but they are not. There will be times in life where you’ll fail. The important thing is to recognize your mistakes, learn from them, and after it, get back to the path you know is the right one for you!

Always Be True To Yourself And Don’t Lie.

If it’s not true, don’t say it and never betray your principles. It is easy to just tell a little lie once in a while. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a small, inoffensive little phrase, it’ll be probably forgotten within a week…” Yeah it might be but there’s someone that never forgets it, your subconscious. That part of your mind can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy. Epictetus said it best: “We tell lies, yet it is easy to show that lying is immoral.” (Enchiridion 52)

It doesn’t really need any more explanation. We all know lying is wrong. Sometimes we lie to get out of an uncomfortable situation and we say to ourselves that we’re right. Sometimes we lie to our boss giving an excuse for a mistake, so we don’t feel the burden of a so-called punishment.

But why not be honest? What’s the worst that can happen? I doubt you’ll wrong anyone important to you if you speak the truth to someone you feel uncomfortable with, so why keep lying? Why maintain the other person in ignorance and keep making yourself feel miserable? There are only two outcomes that can come out of that approach Either the person listens to you and tries to improve. Or he chooses to act bitter towards you, about which, you don’t have to worry about them. You’ll not be able to please everyone, and you’ll find that if you try to do so everyone might like you, but you won’t like yourself.

Why lie to your boss if it is a mistake you’ve made? Why do you try to take the burden out of your responsibility with words? If he somehow punishes you more severely than he should, why don’t you speak with him? There are also only two outcomes that can come out of it if you think about it. Either he listens to you and sees you’re right, or he goes forward with the punishment and maybe even makes it worse. And that would only show you he’s a bitter person, and you don’t have to worry about him. If he cannot accept any truth, he’s not fitted for a leadership position, and time will take care of that problem.

In time you’ll naturally gain the trust of everyone around you. Everybody makes excuses or tries to find a scapegoat. Nobody wants to be on the other side of the crosshairs, but we’re humans. We’re expected to make mistakes, and when we make them, think to yourself: Why am I trying to excuse something that is expected of my Nature?

An honest person is very rare nowadays, so why not make yourself an even more valuable person?

The subconscious makes up the greater part of the mind, and unlike the conscious mind that we’re in control of, think of the subconscious as your sleeping inner super-computer. It registers everything you say, you do, you hear, you see, you read, you taste, etc. It takes everything you give it, so it’s no surprise that when you keep feeding it good habits it will get used to them (and you will as well), but when you feed it bad habits, that might bring trouble.

Making those mistakes or “falling off the wagon” fits into this situation as well. You had some cake and you’re on a diet. You had another couple beers when you said it was enough. You said you were going to do X subject, or stop doing Y bad habit, but you fell off the horse.

Do not crack the whip on yourself. That will bring nothing but pain. Like I’ve said, your subconscious registers everything you give it. Seneca suggested the idea of being able to forgive yourself, which in turn will be much more productive. That approach produces self-love and respect. Ok, you’ve made a mistake, learn from that mistake instead of saying to yourself how bad you are. A simple change on the way you feel about a setback can be the difference from feeling bummed out and sad to see the problem as a point of experience and a stepping stone for a new you!

There’s No Need To Be Rude To Others, Humans Are Made For Cooperation.

It sounds easier said than done, well it is. It’s normal for you to feel aggravated, even angry when someone mistreats you, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that, as long as you don’t do anything crazy to them but what if you turned the other cheek? What if you were the better person?

Ok, let’s do a little exercise, bear with me on this one. Let’s say you’ve had a bad day at work and unfortunately on your way home you crashed your car against someone else’s car. Nobody got hurt but it’s always a bummer. You’re probably asking yourself how can this day get any worse, and getting ready to drop it on the other unfortunate soul that now has the same problem as you, but instead, he stays calm, never loses the smile he has on his face and helps you at the best of his abilities.

The accident was your fault but still, he understands that humans make mistakes, and when we help one another we can transform that huge problem into a much more manageable one. There’s no need to create a scapegoat when we have the same problem. Help people, be kind, errors are part of human nature. And now I ask you, could you still be angry in that situation?

Humans are made for cooperation – that’s how we created cities, developed civilization over time and went from caveman hunting mammoths and fending off sabertooth tigers to a worldwide network that was able to put people on the Moon.

That would not be possible if a caveman didn’t start helping a fellow caveman hunting and defending himself, which in turn, he learned from him and passed his knowledge down, that successively until this very day, we wouldn’t have achieved anything and might as well still be living in caves.

So why do you ignore this huge network we are part of? There’s only one direction for us and that is forward. To do so, it’s much easier and effortless to help people along the way which in turn they will help and push you forward, instead of climbing over all of them, exhausting yourself doing so and covering very little ground in the process.

Start seeing things for what they really are. Let’s say you know a thousand people, and any of those thousand people know a thousand more. That simple way of thinking puts you in the center of a network consisting of a million people. It’s not surprising that when you help someone and be kind to them you positively affect much of that network, you might be changing peoples lives without you knowing it, but if you go down the angry and bitter path towards someone, you might be destroying people’s lives without you knowing it.

Well, now this is a completely different point of view now, isn’t it? But don’t think you’ve been destroying lives in the past, learn from it and start fresh, as Marcus Aurelius put it: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”  

This isn’t something you’ll start implementing overnight, it will take time, but you’ll realize that when you start being kind to everyone, people start being kind to you. No person in their right mind keeps acting rude to someone that keeps acting kind to them. That rudeness won’t last long, but if it somehow does well, you’ve got nothing to gain by doing the same thing and aggravating yourself. Peace of mind is a very valuable thing.

Don’t Let Your Mind Enslave Your Body

This goes hand in hand with the first step, your mind can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy.

It’s easy to take the path of least resistance, in fact, a study conducted by the University of London concluded that our brain is wired to do so, and like Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura said: ”Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest”.

Here I’ll draw on Colin Wilson’s book, New Pathways in Psychology. Humans are very creative with a huge potential to achieve whatever they set their minds to, but that ability has become dormant in modern society and that is a cause for a lot of mental illnesses and unhappiness.

We are wired to chase what we believe is right for us. Mankind was never meant to be idle, since the beginning of time we are a hard-working bunch, that has now become passive with the facilities of modern society and technology.

Show me a man who is not a slave. One is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.


Marcus Aurelius also asked why he was complaining about what is expected of him? Why complain about what fate wants to give him? It’s normal to complain about work, getting up to go to that job you hate, doing that shore that you dread but the day is not only the work and the shore, the day also has much more than that.

There’s an awesome book by Jocko Willink called Discipline Equals Freedom. The title is pretty much self-explanatory, and putting it briefly, it comes down to doing what is hard and reaping the rewards later.

You cannot expect your life to change without hard work, without you pursuing what you know is right for you and later reap its benefits, sometimes it comes down to getting up at 6 am to go to the gym or to send emails, sometimes it means staying up late and go through weekends in your office, but with enough time and effort, you’ll be able to collect the benefits and have a much more tranquil life.

I’ll leave you with a little challenge: start going after what you’ve been putting away. You know, that new year’s resolution of exercising more, that book you’ve been keeping on the shelf, or even that pursuit of your dream job.

I know it sounds scary, I know it’s hard, but is also very gratifying, over time you’ll feel much more fulfilled. When you start chasing something you consider meaningful your brain will thank you.

But don’t make the mistake of going all-in at once. Start slowly, once a week, then twice, eventually it will be part of your routine and doing it an hour a day won’t feel like a chore, it will feel natural. But remember, resting is just as important, don’t forget that, there’s no need… or benefit for you to burn yourself out. When you feel like taking time off, take it! If you feel you deserved it don’t feel guilty about it, enjoy it then get back at it!

With enough time, it might even be easy for you to get up at 6 am to go to exercise or to simply start your day, you might even crave that. You’ll start to feel much more accomplished once you start seeing results, you’ll start saying to yourself that all that discipline and hard work are paying off, and you’ll be looking at your old life with a new mentality, you’re pursuing what fate has laid out for you.

Tough Times WILL Happen. You Have To Be Ready.

It’s funny that we deep down know it, but when tough times come we always get surprised and feel bummed out.

We don’t have any control over the outcome of anything if we think about it. We might guide our actions to the desired outcome, but if it will work or not it’s not really up to us sometimes. Fate just might take control of if, for example, you might keep your car in pristine shape, but it breaks down anyways. You might be in an amazing relationship and contribute a ton for it, but your other half broke up with you for whatever reason. You might work hard at your job, but you still got fired for again whatever reason

You can probably imagine the probable reaction to those events, and it’s normal. Just let it all out, it’s healthy actually, but don’t get stuck in it. In fact, use this quote by Epictetus as a little mental crutch: “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”

The truth is we might think the universe is against us but honestly, it has much more to do than to arrange difficulties for a single life form. It keeps moving forward, and sometimes it puts problems in front of us just because it can.

But if you start looking at adversity from another point of view, it will not only stop hurting you, but will also benefit you. There’s a popular quote that goes: “Hard times make hard men”.

Think that a lot of people have been through what you’re going right now, but ask yourself, what benefit did they get by being angry or depressed? None, nothing at all. It’s normal to feel like that at the time, it’s healthy to let some steam out, but is much more healthy and less draining to put a smile on your face and let your life move on. Whatever you’re going through probably won’t matter in a year, and it can only affect you if you let it. If you keep letting that problem involve you in its darkness you won’t let time do its thing and heal you!

So why not be different? Why not use that adversity to learn and evolve from it? It goes hand in hand with the first step as well, your subconscious registers everything, teach it to look at adversity with a new and much healthier point of view. Take that control away from the darkness and misery. There’s nobody in the history of mankind that succeeded by them, anybody that has a typical approach to adversity normally has a much harder time solving it.

Problems Are Part of Fate And Are Another Door Of Opportunity

It goes hand in hand with the step above, and keeping it going, let’s use those examples. There’s always something to take out of a problem when it happens. I want you to say “Good”, I mean really say it!

Got fired from your job? Good, I was unhappy in it, what about I try a new career? My girlfriend/boyfriend cheated on me? Good, it means that she/he didn’t deserve me and it has shown me that I couldn’t trust’em. My car broke down? Good, it means there’s a problem in a certain area or it’s a reason to make those maintenance checkups I never do.

There’s an awesome video by Jocko Willink that pretty much sums it all up, I’ll link to it here, but there are numerous examples in life of problems being another door of opportunity. I bet you can think of a few if you dig deep, but here are a few examples: food kept going bad? The refrigerator got invented. Diseases were rampant? People created vaccination. Needed to cross the sea? People invented ships. It was cold and dark? People discovered fire. Needed to transport cargo faster and with less effort? Yeah… the wheel. I can keep going on and on, but I think you get the idea.

I know, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done, but well you don’t have many options, you can let yourself feel angry or sad or take a much healthier approach.

Life is change and it will sound grim but it will end one day, so I ask you, why waste time and effort on feeling and acting in a way that will not benefit you? Take some good out of that evil and let life do its thing, help her by giving her the right tools, that is maintaining yourself happy and healthy, keep moving on.

Those steps are pretty much all mental crutches, and it will not be easy to do them, human emotions are natural, and an aggravated reaction to adversity is natural, even healthy, just let some steam out, it’s ok, getting lost in negativity now there’s when you have a problem and is where this steps can help you!

You won’t start being virtuous overnight. It will take time and effort, but you will realize that it’s a much more healthy approach to the problems of life. Sometimes all we need is another point of view, but here I’ll leave you a bonus step:

Be Grateful

For everything you have right now, you might not think it’s a lot, but many people don’t have it. Do you have food on the table? Do you have parents and people that love you? Do you have a smartphone or a laptop that you’re using to read this? Yeah, there’s a lot of things people take for granted but they don’t realize that they are so important and are considered basic and meaningless.

But this simple step will make you look at all the steps above with a new mentality, especially at this new hard time that we really can’t do much about, but the little we can do might be the difference in our life or many others, you can even turn this problem into an opportunity if you look well enough but for now, step by step, little by little, this will help you live a more tranquil and meaningful life.

João Caldas is a mental health writer living in Portugal, passionate about psychology and philosophy, and as a Stoic, always trying to figure what the Universe has prepared for him, helping people to the best of his abilities along the way. He is a fitness enthusiast, a history geek, and a heavy metal fan, all of those responsible for making the person he is today. You can check out his work on his website.

On Being a Natural Stoic by Mary Braun

I am a natural Stoic. I was able to find many of the ideas of Stoicism on my own, by struggling to make sense of my life as a young person.

When I encountered Stoicism as an adult, I could see how closely aligned the ideas of the ancient Stoics—whose lives were unimaginably different from mine—were to those I had arrived at in my youth. I have talked with other adults who grew up in similarly difficult circumstances and have found that re-creating elements of Stoicism on one’s own happens frequently.

Here are some parts I came up with as a young person:

  • virtue is the only good
  • kindness is the greatest virtue
  • no one errs on purpose
  • many things are not under my control
  • Much of what is wrong with the world is caused by other people trying to control things they cannot
  • things that are vitally important can disappear at any moment
  • many of the things that people claim bring happiness do not do so
  • we can reason our way to wisdom

The particulars of what happened to me in my early life that lead me to synthesize the above principles all began when I was seven, when, I became an orphan. My mother knew she was dying, and made plans for what she thought would be best for me. Although my mother could have chosen one of her aunts or her father and stepmother, she chose someone she knew from work, a childless female executive, and her husband, also a successful executive. They were much better off than anybody in my family — my mother and I lived in subsidized housing — and they lived in a lovely house in the toniest of the Detroit suburbs.

My new parents did not want my old family around. So, they somehow arranged for all the people I had previously known to disappear from my life. No one explained this to me. I inferred they no longer cared about me. After a few weeks in my new household, it was clear that I was on my own in this new world and there was no escape.

My new parents were prone to frequent, strong anger. For the first ten years of their marriage they operated under a kind of truce whereby they didn’t interact much. This truce broke down with the arrival of a seven-year-old, grieving child in the house. Neither of them had had so much as a younger sibling or cousin. They knew nothing about children. It turns out that caring for children takes time and family coordination. Having their busy, stressful work routines disrupted by a seven-year old apparently destabilized their mental health.

On top of that, everything about me was wrong, largely because I had come from a lower income family with a correspondingly different set of manners, behaviors, vocabulary, and pronunciations than they wished me, as their child, to present to the world. They set about fixing everything about me. Nothing in my world was stable except the contents of my head. I had to figure out how to navigate this environment. I developed Stoicism.

I think I remember the moment it crystallized. My new mother and I had listened to a news program about a person who was in a Soviet prison for decades. She asked me, “Do you know what the only thing is that no one can take away from you?” I liked riddles and this was a good one. I had personally had the experience of my family, house, school, clothes, furniture, pets, and friends being taken away. People could even cut off your hand but I was pretty sure if they took out your brain you’d die. That seemed like the best answer.

“Close!” she said, “Your memories. If you were in prison for years, like the man we just heard about on the radio, you could comfort yourself by thinking about how nice your last Christmas was. I would think about my vacation to Spain with your father. Then I wouldn’t feel so bad. Your jailers couldn’t make you forget your happy memories, no matter what kinds of torture they did.”

“Really?” I thought. Someone is torturing you and your best defense is thinking about lying on a beach? Beaches are nice, but these pleasant thoughts felt so flimsy against the kind of onslaught I knew someone could bring to you. I imagined a pleasant memory: when my older cousin showed me how to use a sewing machine. It was a lovely memory, basking in the attention of my older, incredibly cool, college freshman cousin.

Then I imagined the rain of blows that was likely to happen later that evening, blows that happened most nights, for reasons I could never understand. This memory, nice as it was, actually made things worse. It was unattainable; I had not seen my cousin in a long time. I could not do anything to get to see her. What sustained me through those episodes was thinking that I would not allow them to change who I was. Outward things that didn’t matter, like how I said, “milk” and what clothes I wore could change, but I would make sure that these blows could not reach inside of me, to the real me. I would remain virtuous. I would know I was still virtuous because I could see how I treated other people. I would never become mean or violent like my new parents. I could not understand why they wanted me to be unhappy, but I would not allow them to succeed. And, what’s more, I would never act in a way to make anyone else feel the way they were evidently trying to make me feel.

I would not yell at other people or call them names or hit them regardless of how angry I was or what they had done. No one could make me be mean. They could torture me as badly as the Soviets tortured the guy we heard about on the radio, but I wouldn’t cave. I would not give in to them. I would not treat other people badly.

I worked on my philosophy of life as I got older. I did not nail down the four cardinal virtues, but arrived at my own. If one was virtuous, it led to deep happiness. I could not define this deep happiness, but I could tell when I was there. My highest value was compassion really understanding what the other person had going on inside and trying to nudge them in a direction that might lead them towards more virtue, and thus some of this deep happiness. I see these as proto- ataraxia, sympatheia, and wisdom.

I noticed that people who avoided extremes tended to be happier. For example, being under the control of food—either because one was always searching for delicacies or because one was trying to avoid eating—led equally to unhappiness. A teenage version of equanimity. 

I valued justice, but justice was always confusing me because compassion felt more fundamental. I would think I had figured out what was just and then someone else would come along and explain why their claim was greater and I’d be confused again.

I did not identify courage as a virtue, but certainly lived it.

I valued honesty. I vowed never to lie, even if it would have gotten me out of punishment.

My new parents demonstrated daily that money and power did not lead to happiness, another Stoic theme.

Every day, every interaction, demonstrated to me more clearly that having my own inner retreat and keeping my inner sanctuary untouched by the outside world was valuable.

As an outsider in my new family, I could see patterns of behavior that other people simply accepted as the way things were. I could notice things about one or another family member and recognize that they were acting oddly. I would wonder why they were the way they were and then often times, because I am a good listener, these people would explain themselves to me, and even as a child, I could see that they were responding to internal forces and old, extinct situations, even though their actions were affecting living people around them in the present. When I first heard the Evelyn Waugh phrase, “To understand all is to forgive all,” I felt as though a light bulb had gone off in my head. There was a way to say what I had been feeling for years in just seven words. I feel this is a succinct way of saying Meditations II.1 “Begin each day by telling yourself that today I shall be meeting with the insolent…” 

As a person whose mother had died, and whose family had disappeared without warning, I understood memento mori.

These circumstances, death of a parent and having my family re-assigned, also led me to recognize the very limited collection of things that were under my control, compared to what was outside of my control. When I first saw the serenity prayer, I thought it weird that recognizing that most things were out of one’s control was a challenge for other people. I watched other people throwing themselves over and over against the wall of desire for wealth or fame which seemed an obviously losing strategy. No one is such a massive wrecking ball that they can breach these things by sheer force of will. In the process, everyone gets horribly banged up. Having been schooled in “you don’t control much” very early in life turned out to be quite useful.

The situation could not have been better designed to make it clear to me that I was on my own. There was no escape, except to turn eighteen. All I could do was make the best of it until then: develop my own plans to satisfy all my needs while keeping my core virtues intact. Many people who as children have been trapped in unpleasant situations have told me that they too developed a system for themselves involving an inner citadel, a core of their own personal virtue, and often a sense of memento mori. I think developing the core features of Stoicism is a natural human response to being in a difficult situation. I think that there are legions of natural Stoics, very few of them as articulate as Seneca, most of us born in a time when we were not particularly encouraged to share our ideas on philosophies of life.

William Irvine, in “On Desire,” describes the way humans superimpose their own life plans on top of the life plan that evolution gives us.

Consider, after all, the situation of actual slaves. They may not be able to escape from their master and his system of incentives, but they can form their own personal plan for living and superimpose it over his plan for them. They might, for example, refuse to let their bondage undermine their values. In particular, they might vow to do all they can to help their fellow slaves. This will entail periodically refusing to help their master achieve his goals, since doing so would undermine the goals they have set for themselves, in accordance with their plan for living. If for example, the master orders them to whip another slave, they will refuse. Of course, if they do this, they will likely be punished by the master’s overseer, but this will be a small price to pay in order to have a meaningful life—not meaningful in the cosmic sense, perhaps, but meaningful in the personal sense, and that is arguably what counts.

I developed my own plan for living, the core of which was that I would not make other people feel the way my new parents seemed to want to make me feel. What I have attempted to describe is the way my self-developed philosophy of life was not dissimilar from Stoicism.

I recognized virtue as the only good. I had a crowd of virtues, not a few cardinal ones. I had the germ of cosmopolitanism. I recognized the dichotomy of control. I had my own inner citadel. I agreed with the supremacy of reason. When I was introduced to Stoicism at the age of fifty, I saw that many of the ancients had been there first, confirming what my life had taught me.

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

The Stoic – June Issue

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization has been partnering with the Stoic Gym, and publicizing it here when it comes out. Questions about The Stoic can be directed to Chuck Chakrapani.

The theme of this issue is Stoic Contemplations. Contributors for this issue include prominent modern Stoics such as: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Flora Berenard, Jonas Salzgeber, Meredith Kunz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here.

  • RON PIES. The core beliefs of Stoicism
  • SENECA. The rules of life
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Meeting death
  • FLORA BERNARD. Mastering desires Facing aversions
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. The nature our possessions
  • SHARON LEBELL. Practicing whatever is useful
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Dealing with others
  • KAI WHITING. Collective wellbeing
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Living the good lfie
  • PLUS…Book excerpts, Stoics quotes for everyday of the month, Stoic Directory and more!

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