If asked for the virtue most associated with boxing, I guess most people would choose courage. For me, it is temperance.
Boxing has been practised across cultures for millennia. It featured in Greek Olympia, in ancient Egypt, Minoan culture, and doubtless passed unrecorded in many other settings, for the urge and facility for one man to strike another with his fists has presumably been universal. If we pick up its history from early British bare-knuckle boxing, the bloody and chaotic bouts started to become regulated in the 18th century by such injunctions as not hitting a man when he is down, giving a count to a fallen fighter, no butting, no gouging, and other restrictions on brutality. In the full heat of a sweaty, noisy battle someone thought to insist on restraint.
The Broughton rules of 1743 were designed to prevent deaths and served to lift boxing out of a miasma of unregulated, bloody dueling. In this way, temperance applied to violence is the beginning of the definition of the sport of boxing. The Broughton rules became the London Prize Ring Rules and are more relevant for us than the later but better-known Marquis of Queensbury rules of 1867, which served to give sporting uniformity for factors such as ring size, round times, and glove weights.
Fast-forward to today’s modern fighting arts and sports. They tend to divide on that descriptive point. If you wish to learn to fight, but you wish to refrain from damaging, hurting or even killing your practice partners and opponents, you have already decided on temperance. There are two broad ways to go about that.
Either you train deadly movements, but with certainty about what is going to happen, the full cooperation of your partner, slower technique, and the replacement of dangerous weapons, holds, or chokes with replicas. This is the method in, for example, some self-defence, krav maga, aïkido, and weapons arts.
At the other extreme you allow full speed, uncertainty, and opposition, but you severely limit the techniques that are permitted. The sport of boxing falls into this second camp. You wear heavily padded gloves and are permitted to strike only with (and to) certain parts of the body. You must follow the referee, gestures, and regulations. Boxing chooses a rule-laden approach to tempering violence.
Temperance is judged by what you can refrain from doing, which is incorporated into boxing training from the start. In every rough, brick-lined and sweat-stained gym around the world a trainer will ask you to refrain from your normal style of walking around. Boxers don’t walk, they use a falling-step or push-step and it takes hours of practice to refrain from a lifelong habit of ambulation. The trainer will ask you to refrain from dropping your hands to their natural position by your side, rather you must defend yourself at all times. These and other injunctions inform your behaviour.
On emotion, you soon will be admonished for looking away or flinching when a strike comes towards you. Night after night you are taught to regulate your fear response and learn that it is not the strike that is the problem, but your judgement of it. Skilled boxers and coaches know this, even though they may never have read Epictetus.
At a later stage of your development, respectable boxing gyms will offer you sparring as a reward for comporting yourself properly. You are invited to box freestyle between the ropes only when you have exhibited enough discipline, perseverance, and skill on the bag, alone, to merit the chance. Good coaches model the desired restraint by not allowing a literal free hand to an unchecked fighter. (I personally identify suspect gyms as those that display no such discipline).
The next stage, as you develop your sparring weapons, is to learn not to mutate fear into anger.
For Seneca, anger is “devoid of self-control”, “regardless of decorum”, and “deaf to reason and advice”. (De Ira, Book I). Boxing is, by this Stoic definition, fully outside of anger. In reverse order: We prefer to box using reason and tactics. Against a technical opponent, the only way to make ground is to understand clearly what is actually happening, not what you wish it to be, and stick to a game plan. In high-level boxing, this kind of reason applied to the nature of your opponent is widely understood to be a virtue. You amend your will to suit the world. There is no place for self-delusion if the strategy is to step a little further left, roll each right cross, or keep working to the body, when that might be exactly what you least favour in yourself.
Further, bouts come bundled with a one minute round of advice in between the three minute rounds contested between the opponents proper. Wise counsel, listening to reason and reflection is therefore fully one quarter of every amateur and professional boxing match. It is understood that the fighter who does not listen to his corner will not perform half as well as his more clear-headed rival.
Next, decorum is insisted upon by the rules. With violence close at hand, it must be. Touch gloves, mind your heads, stop at the bell. Boxing has a form and a harmony which can be beautiful to watch and writers and thinkers have noted it, from Norman Mailer and Albert Camus, to Joyce Carol Oates and A.J. Liebling. The last of which, though originally a food critic and no kind of athlete himself, referred to the unskilled brawling that characterises poor boxing as “anti-intellectualism,” grasping very directly the point. Finally, in its most important aspects, boxing relies on self-control to do what is necessary over what is favoured emotionally.
Good boxing can never therefore be angry. Jack Dempsey, the early 20th century heavyweight champion of the world writes in his lucid and explanatory book that:
Anger provides the No. 1 difference between a fist-fght and a boxing bout. Anger is an unwelcome guest in any department of boxing. From the first time a chap draws-on gloves as a beginner he is taught to “keep his temper” never to “lose his head”. When a boxer gives way to anger, he becomes a “natural” fighter who tosses science into the bucket.
Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense p. 20.
Boxers understand that anger cannot be their direct fuel. Boxing has a history of gathering up disadvantaged young men from poor backgrounds and transforming the anger derived from an unjust life or economic situation into a proud and virtuous technical ability. Boxing teaches at the outset the discipline not to be ruled by that kind of anger, but to sublimate it.
Everybody thinks this is a tough man’s sport. This is not a tough man’s sport. This is a thinking man’s sport. A tough man is gonna get hurt real bad in this sport
To an untrained eye, however, violence abounds in a boxing ring even today. With one fighter blooded and another raining down strikes in an attempt to knock away consciousness to the point he cannot continue, it surely has that appearance. Violence is disorganised, therefore it is natural to infer disorganised rage in the participants. But to a true boxer, a punch is never made or thrown in anger. It has a purpose. It is directed by prudence. It is governed, both by the rules of the sport and by a fitness granted only by discipline.
Boxers also practise temperance through their daily habits. By what other virtue might they rise at 6 a.m. for a morning run, diet year-round to stand on the scales with as much lean muscle as possible, and continue training, sparring, or fighting unperturbed when every nerve in their body screams “stop?” The sort of hardship experiences touted by Musonius in his lectures are in evidence in the daily regime known to boxers worldwide.
Boxing is both an exercise of, and training in, a Stoic style of mindfulness against unchecked reactions. As Stoics, we aim to treat even the worst difficulty as a welcome chance to practise our preferred response. Boxing training amounts to getting punched in the face by your peers and spending hours working on the best possible response to it.
If you have never done so, find a boxing gym and witness your own flinching, cowardly behaviour under the threat of a well-placed glove from a well-trained opponent. Then appreciate the skill with which these young fighters hold their nerve, and react in wisdom and not in fury to what is happening. Progressing through this kind of adversity is, in a way, a meditation: paying attention to the present moment and assuming responsibility for your fear.
My thesis is not that boxers are model Stoics, far less model citizens, but that they employ a characteristically Stoic temperance, reason, and response to adversity, at least when inside the ring. Boxing, in common with almost any demanding human endeavour, ultimately approaches a Stoic attitude in its practitioners.
More praise to Stoicism! Which implies (and this is my thesis) that a boxer’s education will be likely improved by interweaving Stoic thinking into their craft. Oriental martial arts often come packaged with a Confucian, Taoist, or Buddhist training philosophy for its students. Boxing has a centuries old oral tradition of emotional control and training discipline, to which a practical philosophy of temperance and reason clearly has the potential to be a useful complement. I contend that modern Stoicism is a suitable fit.
The approachable writing style of the original Stoic authors is very much to our favour in this project. I have quoted Marcus Aurelius directly ringside to fighters in the heat of competition, with benefit to them.
If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.
Meditations, Book X
In every boxing gym I have ever visited there has been a picture of Muhammad Ali on the wall. The famous one of him standing over Sonny Liston in their second fight in 1965. In my (unpopular) view, Ali displays fewer admirable traits than many other fighters. He is remembered fondly, but in his public pronouncements he rarely did anything more than promote himself and his self-declared genius. (‘It is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am‘).
He inspired people, certainly, and I dare say he helped them – especially people of colour during the era in which he was boxing in America – by standing up to his full human height. This kind of display can be a glorious feat, even a noble one, which people badly want to emulate in order to rescue their own difficult situations. For that reason they love him. But his method was to inflate his ego to such a size that it toppled over lesser opponents. This is self-delusion: hardly Stoic.
But in his favour Ali was able to box clever – he had a boxer’s reason or logos – and it was a more virtuous quote of his which inspired me to discover the courage to win my own world title: ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’. Which returns us to the emotional control I contend is the centrepiece of boxing competence – here, the discipline to prioritise a preferred future over the suffering of the present – often conspicuously lacking in Ali’s more brash pronouncements.
In our gym, however, self-control would always be favoured over self-promotion; fighters would know the folly of getting upset and reacting badly to what the opponent, or the referee, or anyone else is doing; they would respect fair-play and understand that this is just a game played for a short time in collaboration with our partners to mutual benefit; they would want to stay upright in virtue even when it is no longer possible in posture. In other words, ours would be a Stoic boxing gym, and the faded black and white poster on our exposed brick wall would be of Seneca.
James Southwood is a former world champion in Savate: French style boxing with feet and fists. You can find him on Twitter or at his training website academy.londonsavate.com
In recent years, here at Stoicism Today, we have developed a tradition of asking the presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This time around, we get to start that series of posts with one by a member of the Modern Stoicism team who was literally there at the inception of this vast project that has been going on for nearly a decade. With no further ado, kicking off our series this year, here is the contribution by John Sellars!
In what follows I want to set out some key ideas in Stoicism. My aim is to say something about the philosophical ideas that stand behind all those inspirational quotes from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius that circulate on the internet. What are the foundational principles of Stoicism as a philosophy?
I shall start by saying something about how the ancient Stoics understood their philosophy. According to the ancient Stoics, Stoicism is a philosophy with three parts: logic, ethics, and physics. Most of them insisted that these three parts form an integrated whole and they used some nice imagery to try to illustrate this. Stoic philosophy is like an egg, they said: logic is the shell, ethics is the white, and physics is the yolk. Or it’s like an orchard: logic is the enclosing wall, physics is the trees, and ethics is the fruit. Or again it’s like a human being: logic is the bones, ethics is the flesh, and physics is the soul.
In each case, the point they want to make is that these three parts of philosophy form an integrated whole. You can’t have an egg or an orchard or a human being without all three parts. You need all of them. So, what I’m going to do is say a bit about each of the three parts, pick one key concept from each, and say something along the way about how they connect together.
Let’s start with logic. By ‘logic’ the Stoics mean something much broader than the way we tend to use that word today. I think the best way to characterize it is to say that it’s concerned with knowledge: it’s concerned with what we can know, with what we say, the truthfulness of what we say, and the logical consistency of the arguments we make. So, it includes what we now think of as logic, but it’s also much wider than that.
The Stoics – like many other ancient philosophers – think rationality is one of the defining characteristics of human beings, so they place great emphasis on logical consistency. Indeed, so do most of us, even if we might not always be aware that we are doing so. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to hear people criticize others for being inconsistent, as if inconsistency is simply an inherently bad thing. None of us like hypocrites, or people who say one thing one moment, only to contradict themselves moments later. This idea of consistency will crop up a number of times in the rest of what I’m going to say.
There’s so much that we could say about Stoic logic, but I want to focus in on just one key idea that comes from this part of Stoic philosophy. It’s the idea of judgements. According to the Stoics our judgements are the foundation for all of our knowledge. We receive information via our senses, it’s presented to our mind, and we make a judgement about it – to accept it or to reject it – and this creates a belief. Sometimes we make good judgements and sometimes we get it wrong. This is obviously important for simply understanding the world. But something that the Stoics also stress is that we don’t just make judgements about matters of fact, we also make value judgements, and those value judgements shape our lives. We pursue what we think is good, try to avoid what we think is bad; we feel happy when we get what we think is good, and frustrated when we can’t. Our emotional lives are effectively the product of the judgements we make.
Let’s look at a couple of short quotes. Very famously, Epictetus wrote:
It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things.
Epictetus, Handbook 5
And Marcus Aurelius touched on the idea when he wrote:
Don’t say more to yourself than first impressions report. You have been told that someone speaks ill of you. That’s what you’ve been told; you have not been told that you were harmed.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.49
So, the first task, according to the Stoics, is to pay attention to our judgements. All too often we make judgements quickly, unthinkingly, almost unconsciously. Instead the Stoics suggest we ought to slow down, try to open up some cognitive distance between the moment we experience something and making a judgement about it. This could apply to hastily accepting some dubious news story on social media or reacting angrily to a perceived insult. In both cases, pausing before rushing to judgement will enable us to respond in a more measured and appropriate way. This is why judgement is a key concept for the Stoics.
This leads us to the next part of Stoicism: ethics. If logic is ultimately about knowledge, then ethics is primarily about value. It’s concerned with what’s good and bad, and what we ought to do and not do. Many people curious about Stoicism today may think they are only interested in the ethics, but as I’ve already tried to show, the logic is essential too, especially the role played by our judgements. In the second passage we looked at a moment ago, Marcus Aurelius effectively says that if someone speaks ill of you, nothing bad has happened. If you judge that something bad did happen, you’ve made a mistake. So why does Marcus think that being spoken about in unpleasant terms is not a bad thing? This opens up the question of what does and does not have value, and it’s going to introduce the key concept in ethics that I want to focus on: virtue.
What’s good and what’s bad? The Stoics argue that anything that’s good – anything that’s genuinely, inherently good – will always benefit us. It will consistently benefit us (there’s the idea of consistency again). The only thing that they think falls into this category is having an excellent character or state of mind. It can be quite difficult to pin down what they mean by this because there are many aspects to it: it means being rational, consistent, mentally healthy one might say, not overcome by disruptive emotions, and possessing positive character traits such as being moderate, courageous, and fair or just. If you’ve got all these things, you will flourish in any and every situation, they suggest, no matter what life throws at you. Moreover, there’s no situation where having a calm and rational frame of mind will make things worse. Equally there are no obvious situations where being anxious, irritable, or aggressive are going to benefit you, they’d say. Having a good character is always a good thing, and never a bad thing. That’s why it is the only genuinely good thing, according to the Stoics.
So, if we want to live a good life, the most important thing we need to do is to attend to ourselves, to how we think about things (back to our judgements again) and what we think has most value. If you think that maintaining a calm frame of mind is what matters most, then like Marcus you’ll try to avoid judging that you’ve been harmed if someone speaks ill of you, because if you do judge that you’ve been harmed it will in fact be you who is harming yourself. For as we saw Epictetus say, it’s not things, but our judgements about things, that disturb us.
What about everything else? What about all the things that many of us spend much of our lives pursuing? Money, possessions, success, reputation. Are any of these things good? The Stoics are going to say ‘no’, because although sometimes they benefit us, they don’t always do so. In particular, having them won’t guarantee that we’ll live a good, happy life, as we all know from endless stories about the misery of the rich and famous in celebrity media reports. Of course, sometimes these things can be great, and not everyone who has them is miserable, but the Stoics would say that when that’s the case it’s only because the person in question has the right frame of mind. If you are psychologically in a mess, no amount of fame or fortune is going to fix that. So, if you want to be happy, rather than pursue these external things, what you need to do, they say, is attend to yourself, to your judgements, to how you think about things.
Let me paraphrase something from Seneca that nicely illustrates this thought:
When someone complained to Socrates that travelling had done him no good, Socrates replied, ‘What do you expect, you took yourself with you!’
Seneca, Letters 28.2; 104.7
We can never escape ourselves, so it is unsurprising that this is the one thing that will ultimately determine the quality of our lives. We need to attend to that before we start worrying about anything else.
Let’s now move on to the third part of Stoicism: physics. For the Stoics, physics is simply the study of Nature, the study of what exists. And this they think is the third essential part of their philosophy. There’s a lot we could say about this and some of it raises some big issues. For instance, the Stoics say that Nature is governed or organized by a rational principle which they identify with God. But this isn’t a god like the one we know from the monotheistic religions; it’s simply this rational principle, and the way we get to understand it is by studying Nature.
They also say that this organizing principle within Nature arranges things providentially, but they identify this providence with what we might call mechanistic fate, which in turn is identified with simple physical cause and effect. In short, there are multiple ways in which we might try to understand all this, not all the ancient Stoics agreed about the details, and some people drawn to Stoicism today have suggested that given all this ancient physics is inevitably outdated, we shouldn’t get too concerned about any of the details.
Even so, physics is an essential part of Stoicism and there are some basic ideas in their understanding of physics that play an important role in their philosophy as a whole. The one I’d want to focus on now is what I’ll call interconnectedness. They argue that Nature is a single organic unity, an interconnected whole. We are parts of something larger than ourselves and our wellbeing is dependent on that larger thing.
Marcus Aurelius puts it like this:
All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred, and scarcely one thing is foreign to another, for they have been arranged together in their places and together make the same cosmos.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.9
As well as being parts of this single, unified cosmos, we are also parts of wider communities of people, both locally and ultimately as parts of the community of all humankind. We are dependent on those communities too, unless of course you happen to grow your own food, make your own clothes, and process your own sewage, but I doubt many of us do all of that. But anyone who does manage that degree of self-sufficiency from other people would, I suspect, be even more aware of their place within and dependence on Nature as a whole.
In short, none of us can survive alone. We rely on each other and on Nature, and we ought to take that into account in the choices we make. But we don’t need to choose between what’s in our interest and what’s in the interest of the community or the planet, because, ultimately, they are going to be the same. The person who acts in a selfish or anti-social way has failed to grasp this key idea of interconnectedness. The Stoics would say that such a person needs to go back and study their physics. Their moral failing is in part due to not properly understanding how the world works.
In this sense we can see not only interconnectedness among all things that exist but also the interconnectedness of Stoic philosophy itself, with physics underpinning ethics, just as we saw logic underpinning ethics earlier on. We need all three bits of the jigsaw. Anyone who has read Marcus’s Meditations will know that much of the time he is reflecting on his place in Nature. And anyone who has dipped into Epictetus will have seen him both warn against wasting time on logical puzzles while also insisting on the necessity of studying logic.
To sum up thus far, I think we can point to these three key ideas in Stoicism, one from each of the three parts of Stoic philosophy:
Logic: Judgements (determining our experience of the world)
Ethics: Virtue (the one thing that always benefits us)
Physics: Interconnectedness (we are parts of something larger than ourselves)
Earlier I mentioned the importance of consistency for the Stoics. I talked about the virtue of being rationally or logically consistent. We might also think about ethical consistency, in both our own behaviour and in what we expect from others: ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’, as the saying goes. If we admire someone for being trustworthy or reliable, we are in part admiring the fact that they are consistent. There’s also what we could call psychological consistency: someone who is constantly changing their mind, jumping back and forth, unable to make firm decisions or concentrate on one task at a time is unlikely to be able to live a calm and tranquil life, so we need psychological consistency too.
For the Stoics, all these types of consistency are basically one and the same. It’s all about having a consistent character that makes consistent judgements. Or to put it the other way around, it’s about making consistent judgements so that we develop the habit of thinking and behaving consistently, which is what a consistent character is.
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, said that the goal or aim of human life is to live consistently. I think what he had in mind is the sort of mental consistency I’ve just been describing. His pupil and successor as head Stoic, Cleanthes, expanded it into living consistently with Nature, and his pupil and successor, Chrysippus, expanded it again into living consistently with our experience of what happens according to Nature. I don’t think there was any disagreement here; they were all just trying to find the best way to express the same basic underlying idea.
I think there are a number of different aspects to this:
To live consistently (i.e. to be rational)
To live consistently with Nature (in perhaps two senses):
i) consistently with human nature (to be rational again and also to be social)
ii) consistently with Nature as a whole (to be ecological, to work with rather than against the natural world; interconnectedness again)
To live consistently with what happens according to Nature (to accept what happens to us that is out of your control, to embrace fate, etc.)
This I think is what the ideal Stoic life should look like: rational, social, in harmony with the natural world, without complaint.
In order to do this, we need to i) pay attention to our judgements, ii) focus on what’s inherently good, namely having a virtuous character, and iii) understand that we are parts of a larger whole. If we can do these three things, then the Stoics think that we can live a good, calm, and happy life no matter where we are, what circumstances we find ourselves in, and what life throws at us.
John Sellars is one of the founder members (and currently Chair) of Modern Stoicism. He teaches Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of The Art of Living, Stoicism, Hellenistic Philosophy, Lessons in Stoicism, and Marcus Aurelius. He is also the editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition.
One of the anxieties I have been contending with for quite some time now is the fear that I may die without having accomplished much. What I mean is that on one side, I would like to do a job that is socially meaningful, that helps the world go round. Summarising Italian tv programmes’ descriptions so that people know what’s on tv and what a specific programme is about never cut the mustard (incidentally now that I have been made redundant after 19 years on the job, I’ve got a chance to put the money where my mouth is and do something different). On the other hand, I would also like to satisfy my creative vein and write a short novel or a play or a collection of poems.
The other day though, I felt somewhat relieved by a quote I saw on Facebook written by an unknown author. It was a “thought of the day” taken from a notice board in Dollis Hill station (London, UK) dated 12/09/2020 . I would like to dedicate it to all the underachievers of the world like me:
If you’re feeling worried about how little you have achieved, remember that Bram Stoker didn’t write Dracula until he was 50, and Dracula didn’t kill anyone until he was dead.
With this in mind, you can understand my bewilderment when I read a post on Facebook where a writer I follow was recounting a brush he had had of late with death. He claimed that one of his ensuing concerns was that he wouldn’t have had the chance to finish the book he was writing. To put everything into context, this person has provided countless presentations, podcasts, and conference presentations, and is the author of many articles, not to mention a few books.
It was yet more confirmation, if I ever needed one, that “people are not upset by things but by the judgements they have about things” – that all we need to do is focus excessively on what we don’t have and is yet to come, to lose sight of what we do have and all the good things we’ve done. It was baffling to me to see that a person who is very prolific in his work may be left with the existential dread of not having done enough. In fact, it would be no stretch of the imagination to think that even the most accomplished person in the world may, on her dying bed, be left with a sense of frustration for leaving things incomplete or undone.
I wonder whether this is an excuse we tell ourselves to justify our reluctance to leave this world: “Hey Reaper, what the heck, I’m just about to finish this book! Six more months please and then you can do what you want!” Jokes aside, maybe this is the conscious reason we all tell ourselves, whereas the unconscious one would be the pure unadulterated fear of kicking the bucket, of disappearing into thin air, or thick ground, and therefore of having to say goodbye for ever to our thoughts, our dreams, the people we love, the things we are familiar with, in sum the whole human experience, good and bad (I’m talking indifferents!).
Eventually, we need to confront the chilling thought that the ego we have been stroking for so many years, that idea of the self that we have been preserving from harm for so long will be no more… zero, zilch.
At which point, I can only imagine what the Reaper might say in response to someone’s anxiety over their unfinished business (she never looked the understanding compassionate type anyway, judging by the way she’s portrayed and the tool she carries with her): “Bye Felicia, your book will be finished by somebody else, don’t you worry. Your dreams and goals pursued by somebody else, the food you enjoy will be eaten by someone else…” and so on and so forth. Because, at the end of the day, it’s true, the world will still go around after you’re gone, and if your intention was ever to produce something of benefit for humanity and not simply shine out of egotistical light, you should be satisfied with the idea that it will be somebody else who can fulfil that need and not you.
But if ever we feel gripped by the fear of an “untimely” death, all we need to do is turning to the many quotes by Stoic ancient authors which can help us deal with the ultimate end in a calm rational way. Epictetus for one encourages us, in typical Stoic fashion, to reframe our conundrum:
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.
Epictetus, Discourses, I, 27.9-10
And here’s Seneca’s invitation to stop worrying about death, coupled with the less convincing idea that if you are no more, you are not able to miss life… (no shit, Sherlock!):
No good thing makes its possessor happy unless her mind is prepared for its loss; and nothing is easier to let go of that than which, once gone, cannot be missed.
Seneca, Letters, 4.5-6
Putting aside Seneca’s intellectual gymnastics, I suspect that the reason why humans regret losing their lives is precisely because they’re well aware of what they will be missing, while being completely in the dark of what’s on the other side of the river Styx. The flimsiness of Seneca’s reasoning is on a par with the other Stoic concept according to which people shouldn’t fear inexistence after death, the same way they never feared or regretted not having been able to exist before their birth:
Unless I am mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever condition existed before our birth was death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether end, when the result in either case is non-existence?
Seneca, Letters, 5. 4-5
For the same reasons I used against Seneca’s first argument, I would posit that we fear death post-birth because we know exactly what we are going to miss out on and that we accept our non-existence that was prior to birth, simply because we accept the fact that we weren’t born yet at that time.
I find there’s a much more efficacious and pragmatic way to assuage our fear of death and that is mentally preparing for it, rather than hiding our heads in the sand. But for that I shall refer the reader to the examples present in the Stoic literature, which are many and easy to find. Instead I will stay on the subject of the specific fear we may feel of leaving things undone, of not having lived enough.
To that effect, consider that if life is prolonged, yes, you may be able to finish your book, or finally start that career you’ve always dreamed of, but you could also face adversities, because goddess Fortuna is notoriously unpredictable and may spin the wheel the wrong way round:
“I shall die”, you say; you mean to say “I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death.
Seneca, On Despising Death
Yes, you may live a little longer and finish whatever you intended to do, but doesn’t the dread of living assail you every now and again? Do you not get irremediably saddened by the inexplicable cruelty and ignorance you witness in the world?:
If you want a vulgar form of comfort that touches the heart, reconcile yourself to death by observing, above all, the things from which you will be removed, and the morals of those with whom our soul will no longer have to associate.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.3.2
So what if we follow Cicero’s advice instead (as reported by Seneca in his On Tranquillity of Mind, 11.4b), change the script, and like valiant gladiators, defiantly look at death in the eyes and show contempt for our lives?
Or faced with the ineluctability of death, accept that even if we can’t choose the finale, we have control over the way we exit the scene. Let’s do it with dignity and grace, without bemoaning the number of acts we’ve been allowed to perform:
You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts …!” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.36
If you are reading this, you’re probably a philosopher and agree with de Montaigne when he says that “to philosophise is to learn how to die” (a saying attributed by the French philosopher himself to Cicero). Seneca, on the other hand, says that “he who has learned to die has unlearned slavery” (Seneca, Letters, 26.10). Then here’s my wish for you: keep philosophising every day, so that one day you may learn how to die and break free of the shackles of the mind.
A couple of years ago, the following quote from Seneca prompted me to write the script for a guided Stoic meditation entitled “I have lived enough”:
Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon your years nor upon our days, but upon our minds. I have lived, my dear friend Lucilius, long enough. I have had my fill; I await death.
Seneca, On Meeting Death Cheerfully
In the guided meditation I wrote, I invite listeners to think back to the times when they were a child, the careless play times, the fun times spent with their friends, the warmth and affection of a parent or beloved person, all the incredible places they visited, their first kiss, their loving relationships, but also all the dispreferred experiences, the disappointments and the grief and the bereavements, in an attempt to make them relive moments of their lives through their minds’ eye. The idea being that we are so projected towards our future and eager for more, that we seem to forget this whole baggage of experiences from the past, let alone have a feeling of gratitude for them. So, let’s take a moment every now and again and dwell on memories from years gone by.
Granted, the passage from Seneca above was probably written by the author in the winter of his life, when as an old person you may be feeling the ennui of living. But regardless of your age, and with the exception of human beings who may have died really young, if you had the fortune to have been born into this world, you probably have loads to be thankful for anyway. When you’re feeling fearful or you’re losing heart, because you fear the Reaper may soon be knocking on your door, be sure to let these wise words from Seneca gently trickle into your ears:
We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough.
Seneca, Letters, 23.10
And sure as hell you will wipe that grin off the Reaper’s face, for nothing that is welcomed can ever be a threat.
Carmelo Di Maria is founder and facilitator of the London Stoics. He’s particularly (but by no means exclusively) interested in what Stoicism has to say about illness (you can find a couple of articles on the topic on this very blog and a presentation on the London Stoics’ YouTube channel). Some of his other interests are lgbt/human rights, secularism, euthanasia, diversity & inclusion, chi kung, mindfulness.
In this post I would like to examine the role the concepts aidôs and aiskhynê play in the moral psychology and in the ethics of Aristotle and Epictetus. Both of these terms can be translated as “shame.” In the West, shame has gained a relatively bad reputation, and it is sometimes considered to be something we should try to get rid of. As David Konstan notes: “We are ashamed of our shame” .
Shame, however, is a complex concept that involves a lot. It is an emotion that prevents us from doing actions that we consider to be morally reprehensible or degrading, but it can also be a kind of pain that we feel when we think about or are confronted with things in the past that we regret. I hope to show that shame can be a good thing, when it is the case that the feeling or response of shame hits the right target. Feeling ashamed of a growling stomach, for example, or refraining from seeking help when you have run into difficulties that you yourself are unable to solve, are obviously irrational. But feeling ashamed of your own moral shortcomings, or feeling ashamed of the idea of committing a morally reprehensible act seems very appropriate for our moral development.
Aristotle And The Stoics On Emotion.
When you are reading Aristotle, I think that it is important to be attentive to which problem he is trying to solve in his discusssions. When he discusses whether actions are performed hekanton or akonton (often translated as “voluntary” and “involuntary,” and when he discusses prohairesis (“decision,” “choice”, “commitment”), he analyzes these concepts within specific contexts. These concepts are necessary to understand which of our actions we can and cannot be blamed for (and how much), and to understand something about the connection between virtue and our actions.
Aristotle writes about the emotions several places, but the longest continuous treatise on emotions is in the Rhetoric. Emotions are important for rhetoric, since one of the key tools for persuade someone is to create an emotional reaction in the person(s) that you want to persuade.
If you are defending a person accused of murder, who has admitted to having committed the murder, it may be okay to highlight bad events in the killer’s life to try to arouse the sympathy of the judges so that they will punish him more leniently. If, on the other hand, you are the prosecutor, there are several other emotions you can play on. You can play on the judges’ fear that they or someone they love will be exposed to an unwanted incident if a person like this goes free, or you can play on the pain that they have felt when they have lost someone. It is thus not necessarily the case that Aristotle aims to give a complete discussion of all possible aspects of emotions in TheRhetoric, but rather to discuss emotions insofar as they are necessary for (or involved in) persuasion.
Aristotle is a philosopher who takes the human emotions very seriously. Virtue has, among other things, an affective aspect. That is to say, a virtuous person will feel certain things, to the right degree, at the right time, in the right situation, and directed towards the right targets. Accordingly, a person who is angry at a person for several years over something trivial , would not be virtuous, nor would a person who fails to feel anger when he or she is subjected to a great insult.
Emotions also have a cognitive aspect, that is, they have a close connection with beliefs that we have, and emotions, as Aristotle understands them, are the reason why people form different beliefs about the same issue. Furthermore, emotions are linked to pleasure and pain (Rhetoric, II , 1, 1 378a20). For example, if I feel anger towards a person because I think that person has exposed me to a serious offense, this anger will probably disappear if I find out that person has not offended me, but that it is rather I who have misunderstood the situation.
If we want to make someone angry, for example if we want to try to make a judge (or jurymember) angry with a defendant in a trial, there are three things we should know, according to Aristotle: in what way the judge is disposed to be angry, who the judge is angry at, and what things are causing the judge to get angry.
Unfortunately, very little has been preserved from the texts of the ancient Stoa, and the little that has survived is often preserved as quotations and paraphrases in the preserved writings of other thinkers. We do know, however, that Zeno (d. ca. 262 BC), the founder of Stoicism, wrote a work on emotions.  The later Stoics also wrote about the emotions, but little of it has been preserved. However, we have enough material to be able to understand the main features of what the Stoics thought about emotions, as we have the mentioned fragments, a couple of doxographies, and a couple of later texts from, among others, Cicero (d. 42 BC ) and Seneca (d 65 AD). In the Discourses, Epictetus (d. Ca. 135 AD) does not have any own treatises devoted solely to emotions  but the idea that we must free ourselves from desire and fear of things that are beyond our control is a dominant theme in his texts.
The first point that should be clarified in order to understand the Stoics’ view on emotions, is that the term they use for “emotion”, pathos (pl. pathê), is somewhat narrower than what we mean by the term emotion. A pathos is, to put it briefly, what follows from a misconception about goods and evils, and they can be further divided and classified. This gives us the following form :
An example of someone feeling the pathos fear is a person who fears to be executed. For the Stoics, neither dying nor the pain associated with dying is an evil.
The Stoics also believed that there is no middle ground between being virtuous and being vicious, and only the virtuous person has the so-called “good feelings” (eupathêiai) . They can be schematized as follows:
The big question is whether there are also good feelings for us non-sages. For example, if I desire to be virtuous, or feel ashamed of my moral shortcomings, then those can hardly be said to be examples of pathê, since these feelings are not the result of any erroneous belief. Virtue is good, vice is evil. I will come back to this.
Aristotle and the Stoics agree that emotions have a clear cognitive aspect. They will also agree that a change of belief will lead to a change of emotion, and they agree that there is an affective aspect of virtue. However, they will disagree on what the emotional life of a virtuous person looks like. Aristotle believes that feeling anger, at the right time, to the right degree, for the right reasons, and so on, is a feeling associated with having a good temper, which is a virtue (Nicomachean Ethics IV, 5, 1125b-25-35). The Stoics, on the other hand, insist that anger is never a good thing.
Aristotle On Shame
The Greeks had two words that can be translated as “shame”: aidôs and aiskhynê, and whether these terms are synonyms, have been debated. David Konstan refers to the Eudemian Ethics (1128b32-3) where Aristotle seems to consider aidôs as something we feel with regard to the presence or the future, while aiskhynê is also felt about something in the past.
Konstan also refers to Diogenes Laertius’ treatment of the emotional theories of the Stoics, in Lives of the Philosophers, book VII, 112 and 116, where aiskhynê is treated as a type of fear (which is a pathos), while aidôs is a subgroup of the eupatheia caution. Both concepts may, however, be translated with the word “shame” according to the LSJ.
In The Rhetoric, Aristotle defines shame (aiskhynê) as as a “pain or disturbance in regard to bad things, whether present, past, or future, which seem likely to involve us in discredit; and shamelessness as contempt or indifference in regard to these same bad things” (Rhet , II, 6, 1183b12-15)
He then goes on to discuss what makes us feel ashamed, who we feel shame for and in what way we must be disposed in order to feel shame. We feel ashamed to do things that show we are vicious. These sorts of actions include throwing away our shield in a fight (this shows a lack of courage), sexual excesses (this shows a lack of moderation), or not paying our dues, talking too much about oneself, flattery and inability to tolerate discomfort (1383b15-84a7).
Aristotle also claims that we experience shame when we do not take part in the noble things that our peers have, for example if one does not have the same education as one’s peers of the same background (genos), and especially if you yourself are to blame for failing to get these things (1384a8-14). We also feel ashamed if we are exposed to, have been exposed to, or will be exposed to things that lead to disgrace. An example of this is being exposed to violence, since being exposed to indicates lack of manhood and courage (1184a15-20). The latter two are not as obviously associated with virtue as the other examples.
Here we may see a distinction between what we modern humans may be tempted to call proper and improper shame. Feeling ashamed of our own mistakes makes sense. If I’m unfaithful against my wife, or if I am not paying my taxes as I should, then it makes sense to say that I should feel ashamed.
But failing to climb as high on the career ladder as my peers, will, at least in those cases where I do not get as far as the others due circumstances beyond my control, not be anything that says anything about me as a person. At least not in the same way as throwing away the shield and running away from the battlefield does. The same applies to being abused. I admittedly have a little trouble understanding what precisely Aristotle believes is shameful in this. Is it not trying to defend oneself that is shameful, or is it not being able to, or both?
If a friend feels ashamed at underachieving, due to no fault of his own, or if he or she feels ashamed at having been subject to some kind of physical assault, it would make sense to tell the friend that these things are nothing to be ashamed of. It seems intuitive that there are some things that it is proper to feel ashamed at, like all kinds of moral short comings, and some things that it is improper to be ashamed at, like all things that are not moral short comings.
It might be that Aristotle first and foremost seems to be interested in saying something about what it is we do feel ashamed of, and not necessarily what we should feel ashamed of. Another objection is that shame is linked to our reputation with our peers, and consequently we may not necessarily think that shame should only be linked to what we actually have control over. If you are regularly trampled on by others, even if it is not deserved, and whether we try to defend ourselves and not, this will probably affect how other people look at us. The same goes for the inability to enjoy external goods.
We feel ashamed before the people we value, as it is not disgrace in itself that is evil, but rather disgrace in the eyes of people we take to be decent, or whose opinions matter to us. We also feel ashamed before people we admire, and people who are apparently more likely than others to bring us into disgrace, such as people who like to gossip, and comedy poets (1384a21-b9). The latter, according to Alessandra Fussi, since they can damage our reputation among the people we recognition from.
Furthermore, we are prone to feel ashamed if we (1) have a relationship with people we care about, and (2) these people are able to see or account for the shameful things that we have done (1384b26-35). What if we do something shameful without anyone we care about noticing? Based on Aristotle’s understanding of shame, I think the answer must be that in that case we would not feel shame.
However, this does not mean that I cannot feel that I have fallen short in some way, and that I should work on my own character. Fussi writes that the absence of witnesses who may make a difference in my public reputation “prevents the feeling of shame, but it does not necessarily prevent feelings that are related to our sense of responsibility or perception of having failed.” Shame, however, is a social phenomenon in Aristotle, so it requires that other people who have an ability to influence our reputation notice our mistakes.
What role can we say that shame plays in the ethical development of Aristotle’s thinking? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that shame is not a virtue, since shame is more like a feeling and not a disposition (Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 9, 1128b10-11). This is an emotion, he says, that is more appropriate for a young person than for an old one, since young people are more controlled by their emotions and desires, and consequently need to be corrected for their shortcomings.
According to Aristotle, shame is not appropriate for adults, as we can expect more from them, and consequently we can expect them to refrain from doing shameful actions. We can thus at least say that shame plays a role in the moral development from children to adults. Therefore, shame seems to have a conditional value, by virtue of being something that can make us susceptible to correcting ourselves in a period of life where we cannot be expected to be able to act out of a virtuous character.
We should also notice the distinction that Aristotle draws between being ashamed of things that we consider to be shameful due to conventions, and the things that are simply shameful. In the face of our acquaintances, we feel ashamed of what is shameful, while towards strangers from afar we feel ashamed of what is considered shameful by convention. Aristotle claims that children are particularly prone to shame as they have not yet understood what is truly noble, but have been taught by nomos, or convention, alone (Rhetoric , II, 12. 1389a29-30).
Epictetus on Shame
Our sources for Epictetus’ philosophy are mainly limited to the notes from one of his students, Arrianus, and The Discourses are often considered to have originally been longer than the text that has survived to our time. It becomes a bit cumbersome to write “Arrianus claimed that the Epictetus said… ” every time I quote from the Discourses, so I will allow myself to simply say that “Epictetus writes that… “.
As I noted earlier, there is no complete dissertation or treatise on the Stoic theory of the emotions within the writings of Epictetus, but several of the emotions are discussed in different places, including aidôs and the adjective that is arguablyderived from aidôs, or at least akin to that term, aidêmôn. It is a bit difficult to translate aidêmôn to English, but “self-respecting” or “modest” seems to cover at least some aspects of the term.
It might also help to think of it as the opposite of hubris: While a hubristic person exceeds the limits of what is acceptable, and is often unable to even see the limits, an aidêmôn person will stay within proper bounds. This can again be seen in connection with Epictetus’ role ethics, that is, the idea that what we should and should not do can be derived from who and what we are. Both by virtue of our common human nature, as rational and social beings, but also by virtue of our individual nature, which is connected with our capabilities, status in a society, and the specific situation we are in at a particular time.
For Epictetus, it seems that being aidêmôn is also something that defines us as human beings.
Search and you will find what sets us apart [from the animals]. See that we understand what we do, see that the difference lies in our sense of community, our credibility, our moderation, our steadfastness, our intelligence. So where is the great good and evil for humans? Where they stand out.
Discourses, I, 28.20-21
Furthermore, Epictetus writes:
How were we born? As free, noble, and moderate. For what other animal blushes? What other animal understands the notion of shame? [poion aiskhrou fantasian lambanei;]
Shame also affects the ideas we can support
Still, nature has given me the feeling of shame, [aidôs], and I often blush when I take it upon myself to say something shameful. And it is this movement that does not allow me to consider pleasure as a good and purpose of life.
Epictetus, Fragment 14.
The feeling of shame is also something that can be built up or broken down by our own actions. In the same way that Aristotle believes that we become righteous by doing righteous deeds, Epictetus says that we break down our sense of shame by doing shameful acts, and build it up by acting in accordance with it. We see this, among other things, in Discourse 2.4, where Epictetus speaks to a person who has stepped over a limit of sexual decency (apparently by attempting to seduce another man’s wife). Here Epictetus’ claims that by doing such things we will destroy our sense of shame, which in turn destroys the sense of community (Discourses, II, 4.2-3). He further writes that just as a carpenter and a grammarian preserve his technê by performing it skillfully, and breaks it down by the opposite, a person will break down his sense of shame by doing shameful acts, and build it up by acting in accordance with it (Discourses, II, 9.10-11)
Epictetus’ discussion of shame does not seem to have much to do with a fear of a bad reputation, although it is definitely a social aspect of shame, as the ability to feel shame seems to be related to the sense of community and our ability to live out our rational and social nature.
Aidôs also seems to be related to the concept of appropriate actions (or kathêkonta). In his paper “ΑΙΔΩΣ in Epictetus”, Rachanan Kamtekar claims that aidôs gives us an ability to reflect on our actions, not only on whether they are right or wrong, but also on how the actions we perform say something about us as moral agents. To understand this point, we need to take a closer look at Epictetus’ role ethics.
In Discourses II, 10 we see a kind of hierarchical approach to roles. We begin by assessing what is appropriate for us by virtue of being human, and since humans are rational and social creatures, the appropriate actions for us will be rational and social actions. Secondly, there are other roles, which we have by virtue of being a father, a citizen of a particular city, etc. We can thus derive appropriate actions based in part on our role by virtue of being human, and more specifically by virtue of having certain relationships with other people and positions in a society. In all cases, an appropriate action will be something that involves playing their role in a good way. Aidôs comes into the picture when we see the tension between how we should live, by virtue of our roles, and how we actually live, especially by virtue of being human, which is a rational being, and consequently, potentially divine according to the Stoics.
You carry around a god, jackass [talas], and you are unaware of this. Do you think I’m talking about an outer god of gold or silver? You carry it in yourself, and you do not sense that you are dirtying it with unclean thoughts and actions. And if an idol had been here now, you would not have dared to do the things you do now. But when God is present in yourself, and it observes and hears everything, do you not feel ashamed to think and do these things as you do, without sensing your own nature and under the wrath of God?
Discourses, II, 8.12-15.
I have now tried to give a brief account of how Aristotle and Epictetus think about emotions in general, and shame in particular. I have tried to place particular emphasis on the role of shame in social interaction and our moral development. I now want to try to say something about whether shame is a good thing or not, and how the thinkers I have discussed would have answered this question, and how these thoughts fit into our modern notion of shame.
Intuitively, I think both Epictetus and Aristotle will say that shame can be a good thing in some respects. For Aristotle, we have seen that he attributes shame to a certain importance for the moral development of young people. Although Aristotle writes that “we do not want to praise an older person for being ashamed, as we believe he should not do anything that gives cause for shame (Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 9. 1128b20-21). Later in the same chapter, Aristotle argues that a decent person will refrain from committing shameful acts, and that it would be absurd for a person to claim that he is decent for feeling ashamed of the shameful thing he has done.
This is probably true, but I still wonder if Aristotle will attribute shame to a certain role as a motivation for a careless person who has realized his carelessness and wants to do something about it. Will the shame of past moral mistakes be able to motivate him to not do them again in the future? We also saw that Aristotle claims that we feel ashamed of certain things that are beyond our control. I think this is descriptively very true, but I’m a little more unsure whether we should feel ashamed of such things, and whether we should try to not to feel ashamed about those things.
In Epictetus we saw that shame is a central feature of being human. Shame is related to our understanding of who we are and what role we should play. We saw that shame is a key motivator for developing virtue and a sense of community, and consequently shame is not something that we should try to rid ourselves of in every possible case.
I am less certain about what Epictetus would have said in regards to the shame we may feel over not enjoying the benefits that our peers enjoy, or from being exposed to injustice. On the one hand, he would probably have denied that things like a career, education and reputation are goods. But on the other hand, I think he would have been far more inclined to say that failing to play the role one can in society, given the abilities and dispositions one has, is an evil, and consequently a person who has access to, for instance, political office, but still rejects it in favor of a more leisurely and less socially useful life will do something shameful. In any case, I think there are good reasons to stop being ashamed of our shame, and rather try to get it to hit the right targets. Shame seems to play an important role in our moral development and our self-understanding, and consequently it is not something that we should try to get rid of completely.
Aristotle. 2018. Rhetoric , translated by CDC Reeve. Hackett Publishing
Aristotle. 2013. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Anfinn Stigen and Øyvind Rabbås . Vidarforlaget , Oslo.
Arrianus. Epictetus ‘ Discourses, Enchiridion and fragments.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 2002. Tusculan Dissertations, Books 3 and 4.” In Cicero on the Emotions, translated and commented on by Margaret Graver. Chicago University Press, Chicago/London.
 Diogenes Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers, VII, 4 .
 Epictetus never wrote anything himself, but one of his students, Arrian, wrote down some of his discourses, which he collected in a work called Diatribai , or Discourses in English, as well as a shorter collection of quotes such as was called Enchiridion, or the Handbook. See also Arrianus’ preface to The Discourses .
 See, among others, Enchiridion 1 and 5, and Discourses 1.1.
 See Diogenes Laertes, VII 110 – 115 ; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV, 11-12.
 See Diogenes Laertes, VII 116, and Cicero, Tusculan Disputations IV, 12-14.
Harald Kavlistudies philosophy and classical languages at the University of Oslo, is the facilitator for Oslo Stoics and is currently working on a translation of Epictetus’ Discourses. He is the former editor of Filosofisk Supplement, a student-run philosophy journal affiliated with the University of Oslo.
THE STOIC is a 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 some overlap in membership).
The theme of this issue is ‘STOIC FOCUS’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Piotr Stankiewicz, Flors Bernard, Erik Rankin, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.
In this issue…
Living a focused life – Chuck Chakrapani
Focus on radical caring – Sharon Lebell
Focus on simple living – Jonas Salzgeber
Focus on goodness – Meredith A. Kunz
Focus on the timeless principle – Piotr stankiewicz