The Road to Stoic Joy: Laying Down the Four Burdens by Chuck Chakrapani

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking 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 post is by Chuck Chakrapani, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

A visitor was so impressed by the statue of David that he asked Michelangelo how he managed to turn a slab of marble into such a wonderful work of art. Michelangelo slowly turned around, looked at his masterpiece, and replied, “Oh that? Nothing to it. David was there in the marble already. All I did was to chisel away what was not David.”

We can say that Michelangelo’s reply was light-hearted. We can also look at it another way. Michelangelo had such a strong vision of David that he didn’t see the marble at all. All he saw was David’s image, and his job was to get rid of all non-David parts of the marble.

This strategy of elimination can be applied to Stoic joy as well. Instead of asking, “What should we do to be joyful?” we ask, “What should we eliminate from our life to be joyful?” But is this a viable strategy? The Stoics seemed to think so.

Once we have driven away all things that disturb or frighten us, there follows […] a joy that is unshaken and unchanging.

Seneca, On the Happy Life 3.4

All the happiness you are seeking by such long, roundabout ways, you can all have it right now[..] if you leave all the past behind.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.1

[W]e burden ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down.

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

All these quotes imply that joy is our natural condition. It is not the joy of acquiring anything external. Externals cannot make us happy, anyway. It is the joy of young children – before they are taught that externals such as being slim, strong, rich, pretty, or famous will make them happy. It is the joy of simply being alive – what the French call joie de vivre. To experience unshaken and unchanging joy, Seneca advises us to drive away the things that disturb us and frighten us. To achieve happiness, Marcus Aurelius asks us to leave our past behind. Epictetus says that we are burdening ourselves with so many things that weigh us down. According to Epictetus, our only job is to judge the impressions presented to us and reject whatever is untrue.

But how do we do this? The burdens that Epictetus was talking about are not physical burdens but psychological ones. Psychological burdens are not readily visible, and most of the time, we don’t even know that we are carrying them. As always, the Stoics are very clear on what they are talking about. The burdens we carry are specific and identifiable. There are four of them: Foolishness, Excess, Fearfulness, and Injustice. They called them vices.

The First Burden: Foolishness

Foolishness is by far the heaviest burden we carry. In fact, the remaining three burdens are related to this burden and are subtle variations of it. Every minute of every day, we receive several stimuli from our environment through our five senses – people walking past us, someone saying something to us, the sensation arising out of the food we eat, the smell of flowers, and so on. We also receive many internal stimuli – hunger pangs, thirst, and the like. We constantly interpret these stimuli – ‘impressions’ if you will: A person walking by us is ignoring us, the food we are presented does not taste good, etc. We act based on our judgment. Our acts are foolish when we fail to act appropriately. Therefore:

Foolishness is not knowing what things must be done and what must not be done and what is neither.

 What decides what is appropriate action and what is not? How can we tell what we should or should not do? The answer to this question relates to the basic tenet of Stoicism: “Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1)

What is up to us? Everything generated by our minds, such as our desires and aversions, our intention to act one way or another, our judgments, and the like. What is not up to us? Everything not generated by our minds, such as our body, our wealth, our reputation, and the like. When we fail to distinguish between mind-generated and external impressions, we act inappropriately, thus foolishly.

Suppose you lose your job unexpectedly. You may worry about it and fail to enjoy your dinner and the weekend that follows it. You may fail to act on what you could do following your job loss, such as updating your resume, calling employment agencies, letting future employers know about your availability, and so on. If we analyze our reactions, we see that we are not acting upon what is up to us (enjoying our dinner, relaxing over the weekend, take actions that will increase our chances of getting a job) but, rather, acting  on (in this case, worrying about) what is not under our control: losing our job. We misjudge the impressions, and this is Foolishness.

We fail to appreciate that either things are under our control or not under our control. This needs some further explanation because it should not be interpreted as an argument for passive resignation. Suppose you are preparing for a major sports event and you are superior to others. Still, no one can guarantee that you will win the competition. For example,

  • The day before the event, you may have food poisoning and fall ill.
  • During the competition, you may trip and hurt yourself.
  • The competition may itself be cancelled because of the prevailing pandemic.

So the outcome of an external event is never under our control. But to train for the event to the best we can so we have a better chance of success is under our control. Therefore, even in cases where the final outcome is not under our control, we recognize that some aspects that will increase the probability of the desired outcome are under our control. We act on this. This is the rationale of socially conscious Stoics. A Stoic may recognize that their actions may not bring about the desired social justice, but they act because their will to act is under their control. Similarly, an athlete may know full well that she may not win, but that will not stop her from trying because trying to win is under her control. Even when we know that the outcome is not under our control, we act because that is under our control.

When we carry this burden, we will be “frustrated, pained, and troubled, and you will find fault with gods and men. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1)

What is the reward for laying down the burden of Foolishness and confining our actions to those that are up to us?

No one will ever put pressure on you, no one will impede you, you will not reproach anyone, you will not blame anyone, you will not do a single thing reluctantly, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy because nothing harmful will happen to you.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 1

And the penalty for continuing to carry the burden and refusing to lay it down? Again, according to Epictetus, there’s no penalty. But you will continue “to be just the way you are: Miserable when alone, and unhappy when with others.” (Epictetus, Discourses 1.12)

Foolishness is the heaviest load we carry. The remaining three burdens are connected to this one. Just by laying this burden down, we can get rid of most worries about the past and anxieties about the future. And yet, getting rid of anxieties and worries is not enough. After all, psychopaths and sociopaths may not worry about what they have done or be anxious about what they will do. That does not necessarily make them joyful. To be truly joyful, we also need to lay down three other burdens we carry.

The Second Burden: Excess

This burden has to with our inability to choose wisely. We want to hold to everything that comes our way and go after more. We don’t know when to stop.

Excess is not knowing what things must be selected and what must not selected and what is neither.

When we don’t know what to select, what to leave out, we tend to choose things that weigh us down. Excess is related to our wanting more, consuming more and striving after more. It arises out of our desires.

Not all our desires lead to Excess. In fact, Seneca (Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, following Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines) distinguished between two kinds of desires: natural wants (desires of needs) and desires of opinions (desires of wants). It is the desires of wants that lead to Excess.

All of us have some basic desires such as the desire for food when hungry, the desire for water when thirsty, and so on. These are desires of needs. When we are thirsty and drink water, thirst goes away; when we are hungry and eat, our hunger goes away. They don’t lead to Excess. They are common, natural, and easy to satisfy. Then there are desires of wants, what Seneca calls desires of opinion. They include the desire for wealth, fame, adulation, and luxury. The problem with the desire of wants is that these desires can be fulfilled only temporarily. There are several reasons for this:

Desires of wants are insatiable. Even when we get what we want, our desires are not satisfied. Instead, they are fuelled. When we have wealth, we want even more of it. When we have power, we want even more of it. The desires are moving targets. There is no natural limit to desire. As Seneca put it

Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple […] you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 16

However, much you pile up, it will not end desire but only advance it.

Seneca, Consolation to Helvia

Desires of wants are relative. We may be perfectly happy with what we have, but if we come across someone who has more, our desire is fuelled once again. Since we can always find someone who has more, desires of wants can never be fulfilled. To quote Seneca again: “No one who views the lot of others is content with their own.” (Seneca, On Anger 31).

Desires of wants lead us to slavery.  When we desire something deeply, anyone who controls the object of our desire becomes our master. As Epictetus says, we become slaves to those who have the power to grant or thwart our wish. We may become sycophantic and lose our moral compass. “When we desire something, the person who can grant us that becomes our master” (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

Again, there is no reason not to enjoy whatever comes our way. A desire becomes a burden only when we believe we need it to be happy.

Our burden gets heavier and heavier. As we saw, we cannot get rid of our desires by fulfilling them because the more we feed them, the more they grow.  A simpler way, as Epictetus points out, is to lay down the burden. “You cannot achieve freedom by fulfilling your desires, but only by eliminating them (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

Stoicism does not say “don’t enjoy your meal, drink or the wealth you may have”. It does not ask us not to make money or enjoy it. It does not ask us to ignore our bodies. Stoicism is not against health, wealth, or other good things in life. We can enjoy all the “good things” in life even if they are externals as long as they don’t compromise our virtues and as long as we don’t start believing that they are essential for our happiness. So let’s now lay down the burden of Excess.

The third burden: Fearfulness

Now we come to our third burden: Fearfulness. Fearfulness does not necessarily refer to a general trait but to not knowing

What is terrible and we should be afraid of, what is not terrible, and we should not be afraid of, and what is neither.

When we lack this knowledge, we fear what we should not fear and don’t fear what we should. This is the third burden.

What, then, is terrible? Is death terrible? Is poverty terrible? Is losing your reputation terrible? According to the Stoics, none of these is terrible. They are externals and beyond our control. External things that are beyond our control are nothing to us. They cannot affect us.  What is terrible is our misjudgments. Judging things correctly is under our control, and we should be concerned that our judgments – how we judge impressions – be in accordance with reason.

In reality, most of us do the opposite. We are afraid of things that we don’t control and therefore are nothing to us – such as illness, death, poverty, losing reputation, etc. We fail to be afraid of things like judging our impressions properly, which are under our control. We lose the fearlessness that comes from controlling what is under our control and become fearful of things that we cannot possibly control. This, then, becomes the burden of Fearfulness. As Epictetus says,

What do we fear? Externals.
What do we spend our energies on? Externals
Is it any wonder then that we are in fear and distress?

Epictetus, Discourses 2.16

The source of our third burden is our Fearfulness of externals. When we realize that there is no point in being fearful of what is not under our control, we will not be afraid of what the future may bring. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Don’t let the future worry you. You will meet it – if you have to – with reason, the same resource you use now (Meditations 8.8)

Seneca assures us that, even if things go against us, we will have the resources to cope with anything.

Others may say, perhaps the worst will not happen.
You yourself must say. Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins!

Seneca, Moral Letters 26

So, we confidently lay down the third burden of Foolishness. All our aversions are gone. We are not nervous or afraid. We are not anxious about tomorrow. We are not worried about what the future may bring. There is still one final burden – Injustice.

The Fourth Burden: Injustice

What is Injustice?

Injustice is not knowing how things are to be assigned or distributed.

It is not knowing how to give everyone their due. It is not knowing who should get what. The concept of Stoic justice is broad, and it includes our relationship to our family, friends, country, the world, and even the universe. It includes caring, friendship, compassion, duty to the country, and our place in the world and in the universe. Thus when we pollute the planet, we are being unjust because we do not assign to future generations what is their due. When we lack compassion, we are being unjust because we fail to appreciate that we are a part of a larger whole. We fail to see that what is good for others is also good for us.

Epicurus also considered justice as a virtue. However, he saw justice as a social contract. He saw no meaning in justice unless it is reciprocal: I won’t harm you so that you won’t harm me.

Justice is a social contract: We don’t harm others, so others don’t harm us. Justice is nothing in itself without such understanding.

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 31-35 (Paraphrased)

But this is not Stoic reasoning. A Stoic would be just if the entire world is not. For a Stoic, justice is not a social contract. The stoic sense of justice is independent of the person or object towards which it is directed. Epictetus is quite explicit on this:

A student who is estranged from his brother asks Epictetus’s help with this question in Discourses 1.12: “How about my brother’s life?”

Epictetus says, “It is his art of living. But as far as you are concerned, it is as external to you as land, health, and reputation.”

Just in case we are left with any doubt on this, Epictetus adds this later in the same discourse: “You are released from all accountability to your parents, brothers, property, life, and death.”

In Stoicism, we do nothing specifically designed to make others happy. At first, this may sound paradoxical. But not so. Stoicism is very clear on this: No one has the power to hurt us. Only we can hurt ourselves. By the same logic, others cannot be hurt by us. Others hurt themselves. That is what Epictetus was saying.

So the question arises – if our Injustice does not harm others, why is Injustice a burden? Injustice is a burden because it hurts us. When we deny what is due to others, we believe that an external will benefit us. But believing an external will benefit us is Foolishness. A Stoic is just because the virtue of justice is an attribute of the Stoic. All virtues in Stoicism have this purpose: to live life skillfully. (In fact, Chris Gill describes Stoic virtues as “special skills” in his introduction to The Discourses) This is the reason why Injustice is a burden. This is the reason why we need to lay it down.

So we lay down the final burden of Injustice.

Like Michelangelo, who chiselled away from a marble slab all that was not David, we have chiselled away from our life all that was weighing us down.

  • The burden of Foolishness is gone.
  • The burden of Fearfulness is gone.
  • The burden of Excess is gone.
  • The burden of Injustice is gone.

We replace these burdens with four aspects of wisdom: practical wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. When we thus set down our burdens and replace them with virtues, all we are left with is joy that is unshaken and unchanging, as Seneca promised. This is the road to Stoic joy.

Chuck Chakrapani is President of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. Chuck is the author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How and a number of other books on Stoicism.  He is also the founder of the and the editor of THE STOIC magazine.

Updating Epictetus And Stoicism For the 21st century by Massimo Pigliucci

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking 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 post is by Massimo Pigliucci, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

There has been much talk of late regarding the possibility, and even desirability, of updating Stoicism for the 21st century. So I gave it a try with my new book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living, which is nothing less than a section-by-section rewrite of one of the classic texts of Stoicism: Epictetus’ Enchiridion.

Two questions immediately spring to mind: first, why? And second, who the hell are you, Massimo, to pretend to update none other than Epictetus? I’m glad you asked.

To begin with, does Epictetus, or Stoicism more broadly, actually need an update? Yes. And this should not come as a surprise at all. Stoicism is a philosophy of life, similar to Buddhism, Confucianism, Epicureanism, and so forth. It is also similar to a religion like Christianity, not in the sense that Stoics go to temple to venerate Zeus (Cleanthes’ hymn notwithstanding), but because religions themselves are types of life philosophies.

Typically, religions and philosophies of life come equipped with three components: (i) a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world works; (ii) an ethics, that is, an account of how we should behave in the world, more or less connected to the metaphysics; and (iii) a set of practices to help us live our chosen ethics.

For instance, Christianity’s metaphysics includes a creator God who is benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent; an ethics informed by the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus; and a set of practices that includes reading Scripture, going to Church, praying, and so forth.

Similarly, Stoicism provides us with a metaphysics that is based on universal causality, materialism (in the sense that everything with causal powers is made of stuff), and a view of the cosmos as a living organism endowed with reason (the Logos); in terms of ethics, Stoics work on their character by being mindful of the four virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, and they consider themselves cosmopolitans; and Stoic practice features a number of exercises, from mindful journaling to mild self-deprivation, from meditating on the cosmos to contemplating adversity.

But the fact is that nobody living today is a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Confucian, in the same exact way in which people were Christians, Buddhists or Confucians two or two and a half millennia ago. Philosophies of life (and religions) evolve.

Indeed, Stoicism began to evolve almost from the get go. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, tells us of the disagreements among Zeno of Citium, the founder of our sect, and his first two successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus (VII.89). We know of an early Stoic named Dionysius the Renegade, who also disagreed with Zeno (VII.165). Ariston the Bald, ailing from Chios, rejected the crucial Stoic concept of preferred and dispreferred indifferents (VII.160), while the middle Stoic Posidonius maintained, with Aristotle, that externals are goods (VII.103).

As John Sellars documents very nicely in his The Art of Living, the Stoics also altered their positions over time in response to external pressure from other schools, for instance the Skeptics, who were doubtful about the alleged infallibility of the Sage. Perhaps it is for this reason that we hardly hear about that mythical figure in later Stoics like Epictetus.

In fact, Seneca explicitly tells his friend Lucilius that we should consider new paths and new knowledge, if and when they become available to us:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.

Letter XXXIII.11

Assuming I have made a decent argument that change is inevitable for life philosophies, and that Stoicism is no exception, the question still remains about my own impudence on the matter. Well, perhaps I am indeed more than a bit impertinent, but at least I’m in good company!

Just the Enchiridion has been updated or rewritten several times. Four different versions were produced to train Christian monks, in the 10th, 11th, 14th, and 17th centuries. And of course Sharon Lebell produced her version as recently as 1995. Moreover, Stoicism in general has been updated by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) during the Renaissance and in modern times by my friend Larry Becker.

Also, I’m going about this not just by way of books aimed at a general public — which I do regard as of crucial importance — but also at the scholarly level, with a number of publications aimed at making a more technical philosophical argument for what I call Stoicism 2.0, or the Fifth Stoa (the other four being the early Stoa of Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus & co.; the middle Stoa of Panaetius and Posidonius; the late Stoa of Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, Hierocles, and Marcus Aurelius; and the fourth Stoa of the above mentioned neo-Stoic, Lipsius).

The above said, in order to understand where I’d like to bring Epictetus for the 21st century we need to recap where the original stood back in the early second century. Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism hinges on a number of reformulations of early Stoic ideas as well as innovations brought forth by the sage from Hierapolis.

Broadly speaking, there are three fundamental concepts on which Epictetus’ philosophy is based:

(i) The so-called dichotomy of control
(ii) The three disciplines
(iii) His formulation of role ethics

The dichotomy of control goes back to the very beginning of Stoicism, but Epictetus makes it a fundamental aspect of his approach, as famously laid out right at the beginning of the Enchiridion:

Some things are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (1.1)

I like the “some things are / are not up to us” rendition far better than the use of the word “control,” which opens up all sorts of misunderstanding, along the lines, for instance, of Bill Irvine’s questionable trichotomy of control: what we control, what we don’t, and what we merely influence. We don’t need a trichotomy because anything we influence is in turn the result of some things that are up to us and some that are not. For instance, I can influence, yet do not completely control, my chances of getting hit by the corona virus. But this influence is a combination of things that are not up to me (the pandemic, the biology of the virus, my immune response system, other people’s behavior, etc.) and things that are up to me (washing hands, wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.).

Indeed, the dichotomy control is best understood as an invitation to shift our attention from outcomes to efforts, that is, to internalize our goals, as famously described by Cicero by way of a metaphor involving an archer:

If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight. … Yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose … the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’

De Finibus III.22

The three disciplines are those of desire and aversion, action, and assent. These are the three areas of our behavior in which we should focus our efforts, according to Epictetus. The discipline of desire and aversion trains us to desire what is truly good for us, as opposed to what other people tell us is good, as well as to develop aversion toward things that are truly bad for us, and not those things other people tell us to avoid. Essentially, this means that we should only desire good judgments and only be averse to bad judgments, because those are, in the end, the only things that are truly up to us. And also the very things from which everything else in our life stems.

The discipline of action then teaches us how to apply our judgment to our behavior toward both ourselves and other people, while the discipline of assent refines our ability to reason about things and, again, arrive at good judgments and minimize bad ones.

As for Epictetus’ role ethics, this is the notion that in life we juggle three categories of social roles: that of a human being, a member of the human cosmopolis; roles that we are assigned to by the circumstances (e.g., being someone’s daughter or son); and roles we choose for ourselves, given our circumstances (e.g., being a mother or father, a friend, and so forth).

Epictetus teaches that the role of a human being is fundamental and trumps all others. We should never do anything that undermines the human cosmopolis (think about that the next time you engage in an activity that contributes to global warming, for instance). The other roles need to be balanced according to the circumstances and to the various duties we have toward others (as mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, etc.).

Finally, let me get back to my Field Guide, so entitled because life happens “in the field,” not in the armchair of the theoretical philosopher. Its core is structured in six parts, dividing up the 53 sections of the original Enchiridion in a fashion proposed by John Sellars in his The Art of Living:

  • Setting Things Straight: Where We Learn the Most Important and Practical  Lesson of Them All. (Section 1)
  • Training Our Desires and Aversions:  Where We Begin to Reorient Our Likely Misguided Desires and Aversions. (Sections 2-29)
  • Training to Act in the World: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Behave Justly Toward Other People. (Sections 30-41)
  • Training Ourselves to Think Better: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Improve Our Judgments About Things and People. (Sections 42-45)
  • Training to Live Well: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Practice the Art of Living. (Sections 46-52)
  • Four Pieces of Advice from Epictetus: Where We Listen to the Master. (Section 53)

Throughout, I update not just Epictetus’ language and examples but, in several cases, his ideas. In particular, there are six areas in which I depart more or less from the original, with each departure and its rationale detailed at the end of the book, for ease of comparison between Stoicism 1.0 and 2.0. Here is a taste:

Externals don’t need to be despised. Epictetus, and even more Seneca, encourage us to “despise” externals, because they get in the way of virtue. To be fair, that’s the word used by Seneca, but nonetheless Epictetus clearly represents the more “Cynic” wing of ancient Stoicism, encouraging a strongly minimalist approach to externals. Yet the fact is that — as Epictetus himself admits at times —virtue cannot be practiced except on externals. It is still the case that, contra Aristotle, externals remain preferred, not necessary, for a eudaimonic life, but the modern Stoic doesn’t need to shy away from them, so long as she owns them and not the other way around.

No need to cultivate indifference to human loss. To embrace — not just endure — the death of a loved one, as Epictetus urges us to do, may appear callous. But Epictetus believed in Stoic Providence, which made it reasonable for him to advocate what Nietzsche later famously referred to as amor fati. Most of us moderns, however, don’t have the luxury of believing in Providence. Consequently, fate needs to be accepted and endured, but we cannot be expected to embrace it.

Live according to nature. Nature, for the Stoics, consisted in a living organism participating in the Logos, the ability to be rational. By contrast, nowadays we think, in accordance with evolutionary theory, that rationality evolved locally (on planet Earth, and perhaps in a few other places) as a result of a series of historical twists and turns. There is nothing inevitable or cosmic about it. In modern parlance, then, to live according to universal nature just means “follow the facts” (of science) as Becker puts it, while living in accordance to human nature means to practice and augment — by way of reason — our innate prosocial and cooperative tendencies as primates.

Questionable science or metaphysics. The ancient Stoics believed in divination, which for them was a reasonable corollary of the notion of a universal web of cause-effect. We believe in the latter, but not the former. Similarly, there are a number of other aspects of ancient Stoic “physics” (i.e., a combination of science, metaphysics, and theology) that we can no longer endorse because of progress in both science and philosophy in the intervening centuries. (Fun fact: unlike the Stoics, we also don’t think that the seat of the hegemonikon, our ruling faculty, is the heart. It actually pertains to the brain.)

God or atoms. Despite a surprising number of attempts by some modern Stoics to recover the ancient concept of a Universe-God, there is no basis in modern science for the idea that rationality is a characteristic of the universe, or that the world is akin to a living organism. In fact, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and Epictetus used an argument from design to arrive at their conclusions, but David Hume and Charles Darwin definitively put to rest any such argument. Fortunately, as Marcus Aurelius himself realized, nothing much of consequence follows from this, in terms of ethics, except for the abandonment of the above mentioned amor fati.

Local customs are neither universal nor immutable. The Stoics were, naturally, people of their time. For instance, while they did regard women as intellectually endowed as men (as Seneca says in his letter to Marcia), they still endorsed a number of social customs (e.g., for the Roman Stoics, sex only for procreation, within a marriage) that no longer make sense to us. And bits of Epictetus and Seneca are positively cringeworthy, by our standards. Accordingly, modern authors like Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford have been exploring new Stoic thinking about feminism.

Justice at a societal level. Similarly, the ancient Stoics did say that slavery, for instance, is an evil; they did fight against tyranny and oppression (the “Stoic opposition”); and they were cosmopolitans. But they had no concept of justice at a societal (as distinct from individual) level. Modern authors are now reflecting on how a Stoic framework can inform issues of justice and environmentalism (e.g., Larry Becker, Chris Gill, Gabriele Galluzzo, Kai Whiting).

Stoicism has always been, and will continue to be, a living, evolving, ethical, and practical philosophy of life. A Field Guide to a Happy Life is just the latest attempt to keep it meaningful for contemporary practitioners. It is not, and should not be, the last one.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His academic work is in evolutionary biology, philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. His most recent book is A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. You can find more by Massimo here

Stoicism in Action After Lockdown by Christopher Gill

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking 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 post is by Christopher Gill, one of the founders of Modern Stoicism, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

I want to talk about how Stoicism can help us deal with the pandemic, both under lockdown with the current restrictions in our various countries and afterwards, when, as we hope, we go back to normal – or what people are calling ‘the new normal’. The ideas in this post are similar to themes in this year’s Stoic Week handbook which focused on the theme of “Stoicism during a pandemic”.

Although the pandemic has been very difficult for many people, there have been some positives. Some of us at least have been forced by the situation to behave in more Stoic way. We have shown more resilience in the face of problems. We have acted in a more neighbourly and public-spirited way, helping others around us who are more badly affected than us. And we have also behaved, especially early in lockdown, in a more environmentally responsible way, with less car-driving and big reductions in flying, with its big carbon footprint, and significant improvements in air quality.

But what happens next, as we go on dealing with the pandemic or as things are eased? Does all this Stoic behaviour go by the board as we get back to normal or get used to the situation? I hope not. The current crisis gives all of us a chance to re-assess the way we behave and bring our actions closer to our ideals and aspirations. Stoicism provides a framework that can enable us to act in this way deliberately and consistently and not just as a response to the pressure of the pandemic and lockdown.

How can Stoicism help us take forward some of the best features of lockdown? First, by practising some of the Stoic ‘exercises’ on a regular basis. And, second, by reflecting on Stoic ethical ideas underlying those exercises. I’ll focus on three themes: promoting resilience, neighbourliness and a sense of community, and environmental responsibility.

In this way, as we put it in the current ‘Stoic Week Handbook’, Stoicism can help us to take care of ourselves, other people, and our world.

First Topic and First Exercise: Resilience and The Dichotomy of Control

What can promote resilience? Exercising “the dichotomy of control” – distinguishing between what is and is not within our control and focusing on doing properly what we can actually determine and accepting that a great deal does not fall within our power.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word whatever is of our own doing; not in our power are our body, our property, reputation, status, and in a word whatever is not of our own doing

Epictetus, Handbook 1

Distinguishing the two types of things is crucial for making proper choices, managing emotions, and responding to difficult and troubling situations with resilience. Marcus Aurelius gives a beautiful illustration of this point, as he urges himself to respond to the kind of setbacks we call ‘bad luck’:

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest about it. “It is my bad luck that this has happened to me”. On the contrary,  say, “It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future … Surely what has happened cannot prevent you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, thoughtful, self-respecting, free, and the other qualities whose presence enables human nature to maintain its character.

Meditations 4.49

In other words, what is within our power is to try to practise the virtues; what is not in our power is to avoid all the problems and difficulties we call ‘bad luck’.

So how does this help us in the pandemic and afterwards? One of the disturbing things about the pandemic is that there is so much in the situation that none of us can control that it is easy to fall into panic or despair. This makes it even more pressing to try to distinguish between what we can and cannot control. In fact, even in this situation there are some things that we can all do and that fall within our power: following government rules or medical advice about social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings and so on. This may seem little enough; but if this advice is consistently followed, as it has been in some countries with far fewer fatalities than the UK or USA, for instance, it can help to keep the virus at bay, and thus extend the scope of what falls within our collective power.

Also, if we accept the situation in realistic but rational way, we can work out strategies for carrying on doing things that we think are important, for our work, our well-being, and that of our families and friends, even though what we can do is different from what we did before. If we can do this consistently, then, like Marcus Aurelius, we can turn bad luck into good luck; we can turn a difficult situation into one in which we can work towards expressing the virtues, especially the four classic virtues recognized by Stoicism: wisdom, courage, justice and self-control. In fact, there have been some outstanding examples of courageous and other-benefiting action during the pandemic, especially by health-workers risking or losing their lives; but although we may not all be moral heroes, we can try to exercise virtue in our own sphere of life. Recognizing the distinction between what is and is not within our power is the first move in this process and the key to finding resilience in the pandemic and after it.

Second Topic: Promoting Neighbourliness and a Sense of the Human Community

Another positive feature of people’s behaviour under lockdown has been a revived sense of neighbourliness: shut up in their houses and apartments, some people have been more aware of the people around them and more ready to be friendly and helpful to them. Also, we have been forcibly reminded how interdependent we are, in our communities, our countries and indeed globally. Our state of health, whether or not we get infected, has depended on the behaviour of others, just as their chance of being infected has depended on how we act. This sense of community is something that has been forced on us by the situation. But, again, Stoicism can provide a framework for building on this positive feature and doing so in a considered and rational way.

People interested in applying Stoicism to their lives sometimes stress only the fact that it enables you to be resilient as an individual, to work for your own peace of mind, and to create what Marcus Aurelius calls ‘the inner citadel’ (Meditations 8.48). And that is one side of Stoicism, as I have just illustrated: it provides the basis for taking care of yourself. But the ancient Stoics also stressed the social, other-related side of human life. They regarded human beings as the kind of animals who are, fundamentally, both rational and sociable. They saw care for others as an in-built human motive, as natural to us as the instinct to care for ourselves. The best way to care for oneself, in the Stoic view, is to develop the virtues and work towards a happiness based on that; and that is also, as they see it, the best way to express your instinct to care for others. Here is an exercise often used in the Stoic Week handbook to promote a sense of community, based on advice offered by the Stoic Hierocles (A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge 1987 = LS 57 G).

Second Exercise: Contracting the Circles of Relationship.

Think of yourself as being at the centre of a series of circles of relationship: your immediate family; then your extended family; then friends, neighbours and work-colleagues; members of the same neighbourhood or organisation; those living in the same city or region; members of the same nation; foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers. Work on trying to reduce the circles, giving to the outer circle the same importance and emotional weight you would give to the one inside it. For instance, treat neighbours like friends or family members; foreigners like fellow-citizens, work-colleagues like members of your family; try giving the outer circle the same names that you would give the one inside (so foreigners become ‘fellow-Brits’ or fellow-Australians or fellow-Americans).

How can this exercise help us during the pandemic or as things ease, and we work out what should count as ‘the new normal’? In thinking about this topic, we need to take it alongside the first topic, on what is and is not in our power. Many of our normal patterns of relationship with family, friends, and work-colleagues have become difficult or impossible, and we are all having to work out what is and is not in our power, and how to maintain our relationships under difficult circumstances.

What Hierocles’ circles offer is, first of all, a kind of mental map of our patterns of relationship, even if we are not in close physical contact even with those in the inner circles. This mental map may be helpful in counteracting a sense of isolation in the present situation: these circles exist even if we are not in direct contact with people we care about. Also, Hierocles’ advice about contracting the circles can help us to think more creatively about the relationships that we can do something about.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help in putting this exercise into practice. Are there specific, achievable ways in which we can make more of our relationships at present than we normally do? Can we give more practical or emotional help to our neighbours than we usually do? Can we cooperate more closely than usual with our work-colleagues, for instance, in working out with them and our employers, if we are able to do so, the best work-patterns now and after the pandemic? Can we contribute to trying to create a framework for work and home life that is better suited to living a well-balanced and humane way of life? As we think about these questions, it is worth trying to keep hold of the awareness we have now that we are very much part of a larger human community in our country and world-wide. Let us use that awareness to counteract narrowness of outlook and concern and to remember that, as the Stoics believed, we are all part of the same human family and co-citizens of the world that we share. (See LS 57 F, Cicero, On Ends 3.62-8.)

Third Topic: Promoting Environmental Responsibility

During the early stages of the pandemic, especially, many of us found we were forced to behave in a more sustainable way. There was less car-use, less commuting and less leisure travel, and much less flying. As a result, there was a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, which are a major factor in global warming and climate breakdown, and a big improvement in air pollution in and around cities. It wasn’t by itself enough to keep emissions down to a sustainable level. As environmentalists keep telling us, we need to do all we can to keep global warming down to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels (that is, to go further than the 2 degrees target of the 2015 Paris accords) and we need to introduce measures to bring this about as soon as possible.

Although the worst effects of climate breakdown will come later in the century, the window of opportunity for effective reduction in global warming is very short, if we are to have any realistic chance of preventing those consequences. We need to do this in a more systematic, world-wide way than we have done under the pandemic; and it will involve large-scale changes in how we all act as well as technological advances. However, the pandemic has shown that, if people really see the need for action, they can change their behaviour on a world-wide basis and do so very quickly.

What does all this have to do with Stoicism, you might say? Isn’t global warming, like the pandemic, one of the things that lies outside our power to control and that we can just have to accept? I don’t think this is right, although it is true that the time-scale for effective environmental action is very tight. I think we have good Stoic reasons for wanting to live more sustainable lives and to encourage our communities and governments to act constructively and quickly. Stoicism tells us that our happiness in life depends on living in accordance with the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and self-control. For a modern Stoic, I don’t think we can say that we are trying to act virtuously if we don’t do everything in our power to respond to the most important shared problem facing us today, with potential effects much more wide-ranging and severe than the current pandemic.

Also, Stoicism stresses the idea that human beings are, fundamentally, part of the natural world, and that we should try and live our lives in accordance with the order which is in-built in the natural world as it is in us. Marcus conveys this idea powerfully:

One should always keep in mind these things: what the nature of the whole is, and what my nature is, and how my nature is related to that of the whole, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole, and that no one can prevent me from always doing and saying what is in accordance with nature, of which I am a part

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.9

Acting in an environmentally sustainable way helps us to do what Marcus is urging himself to do, that is, ‘acting in accordance with nature, of which I am a part’. Stoics believe that the world and universe have an in-built order and structure. Even though as moderns, we may not share the Stoic worldview in other respects, we too can see global warming as a breakdown of the natural order, with terrible implications for human beings as well as other animals and plants. So a Stoic response is to use the rationality that forms a crucial part of our shared human capacities, in doing what we can to contribute to preserving the natural environment of which we form an integral part.

What, in practical terms, does this involve? Let’s take a simple example, booking a mini-break holiday flight for our family to an attractive but distant overseas destination, involving unnecessary CO2 emissions and contributing to global warming. Of course, at the moment this might not actually be possible; but it can be one of the things we are looking forward to after the pandemic. However, in Stoic terms, this is not a good idea, for several reasons.

If we did this, we would be failing to exercise the four cardinal virtues. We would not be acting wisely or with good judgement, in the light of the environmental damage. We would also not be acting justly, in that our actions would have a harmful effect on the environment for other people as well as ourselves, people whom we should be seeing as fellow-members of the family of humankind. Instead, we could act in a way that falls within our power, and plan a holiday that does not involve flying or much travel at all, and which also enables us to explore our own area and find out what it has to offer. Doing so might take courage, having the courage of our convictions, even if disappoints family or friends looking forward to the trip. It would also involve exercising self-control or moderation, as we give up something pleasurable we are looking forward to.

(On Stoicism and the environment, see the Stoicism Today blog archive, specifically Kai Whiting’s piece on “Stoicism and Sustainability” and my posts on “Stoicism and the Environment” and (with Gabriele Galluzzo) “Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility”.)

So overall here are three things we can do as modern Stoics during and after the pandemic:  

  • Work on building up resilience by distinguishing what is and is not in our power and by trying to develop the virtues, something that falls within the power of all of us.
  • Aim to keep up your neighbourliness and sense of community by trying to contract the circles of your relationships and seeing all human beings as brothers and sisters and fellow-citizens in the universe
  • Aim to lead a more environmentally responsible life by thinking of yourself as an integral part of nature as a whole and by working to maintain and preserve the order of nature.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Podcast #16: Mick Mulroy, and Where Philosophy and Soldiering Intersect

In this episode, we talk with Mick Mulroy about philosophy, soldiering, and where the two intersect.

Mick is the co-founder of Lobo Institute, a private firm consulting, advising, and teaching on current and future conflicts. Mulroy is a former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer, and United States Marine. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy at the Middle East Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, and an ABC News National Security Analyst.

Link to Mick’s article:

Leave us a comment down below about what you thought about the podcast you’ve heard today!

Women Don’t Need Stoicism; Stoicism Needs Women by Sharon Lebell

With this post, we continue our tradition of asking 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 post is by Sharon Lebell, who spoke at the main 2020 Stoicon

Hello my philosophical friends. It is pleasure and privilege to share this precious time with you. I hope each of you has been managing as well as you can across the avalanche of challenges of the past many months, and that you’ve harvested some useful insights from the fascinating preceding speakers which you can put into practice right now in order to access, develop, and express the better parts of your nature.

This is what I love about Modern Stoicism:  it is something we do. Stoicism is not inert words on a page or clever philosophical repartee. It is a summons to our souls to live with dignity,  grace, and style—to elevate our character through beneficial action and through the restraint of ill-considered words or actions. We do not traffic in credos. We focus on honest self-reflection and how our thoughts, words, and deeds might, in their small way, radiate to others and thereby upgrade the social ecology of which we all are a part

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  I won’t be using multimedia, no power points, and the like. In this time of physical separation, I want to speak to each of you as unmediated as possible in the hope that however geographically, ideologically, or culturally distant we are from one another, we can still move in the direction of what Existentialist philosopher Martin Buber called an I/You or I/Thou relationship, instead of an I/It relationship.

I confess I chose the provocative title of this talk, “Women don’t need Stoicism, Stoicism needs Women,” to win your attention. However, this choice is not disingenuous. And, my words are less polemical than the title might suggest. I am not here to say waaah, waaah, waaah:  where are the women Stoics? And, I am not positing a female vs. male binary.  As to the oft-asked question:  why does modern Stoicism continue to attract mostly males over females? That’s a topic for another conversation.

Here’s what I do know:  many of my cherished personal values and a prism through which I view my place in the world and my relationships with others were inspired by the teachings of men, known as the Stoics, who preceded me roughly by two millennia. That they were men, who addressed their spoken and written words to males, and explained their ideas by invoking metaphors, stories, and analogies rooted in male experience is more than noteworthy.  It’s a challenge. And, it’s a modern opportunity. (We will get to the opportunity part of this discussion further on.)

If we speak of wisdom, which implies perennial and universal value and utility of principles and practices arising from one sex only; where is the universality in that? Something, a big something, is missing, right?

While the best ideas for living well may have no intrinsic gender and might potentially be adapted or extended so as to be universally understood and applied, those ideas are nevertheless transmitted through the stories and  life experiences of one’s own sex. The Stoic pantheon, including Zeno of Citium, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, et al., could not have possibly invoked, for example, the transformative emotional and physical tribulations of bearing and giving birth to children and the profound existential wisdom such experience serves up, because those experiences were foreign to them. Today, however, we know more, and can do different.

When we read Stoicism’s origin texts, Epictetus’ Discourses, say, or Marcus’ Meditations, we will always be reinforcing the archetype of the male protagonist and his agon. That’s just the way it is. When these texts were written or transcribed, someone of my sex was a person of no account. In Stoicism’s formative centuries, my voice would not have counted, my experiences would have been of secondary value if considered at all. The Stoic canon, riddled as it is with male athletic and military metaphors, does not elevate, for example, the most basic human exigencies of caring for, teaching, and enculturation of children as a sine qua non of human experience. And we cannot fault those teachers for their doggedly male understanding of the world, because that was their understanding of the world. And, mind you, I hope it goes without saying that female experience, then as now, more than transcends our childbearing capacity.

Still, females spend our lives viz a vis Stoicism and so much else, doing what I call the mutatis mutandis dance. When reading Stoicism or most anything else, we have to “make the necessary changes” to subtextually change the specifically male references that are meant to stand in for the universal human to be relevant to us. We have to insist on our own inclusion in the text or the discussion even if the metaphors don’t fit so well. We project ourselves as best we can into a male set of references for the nonce. And certainly all the, however well-meant, efforts to say “his or hers”, and so on, only underscore the ambiguity, awkwardness, and exclusion male-gendered locutions imply.

In order to belong to the world, females must cherry pick and adapt texts, discussions, and thought systems to include and apply to us. Females are what linguists call “ The marked case,”  which is the state of standing out as unusual or divergent in comparison to a more common or regular form. In a marked–unmarked relation, one term of an opposition is the broader, dominant one, in this case the terms “man” and “men.” But none of this is news. We’ve all been grappling with the limits of and exclusionary effects of gendered language for years. Tell us something we don’t know, right?

Because, the challenge for not only females, but for all of us, who want to, as we modern Stoics say, “rise to the work of a human being,” is not merely linguistic.

Not surprisingly, I have always thought of myself first and foremost as a human being. But, all I have to do is stick out my baby toe into the public sphere where I am immediately reminded by the world that I am first a female and incidentally a human being. Males have the luxury of being considered de facto prototypical human beings. Women have to ontologically fight for that privilege.

Though I feel inside like a human being first, the world and my body remind me otherwise. It is part of female ontology to move through the world far more vigilantly than our male counterparts, because females are potential prey due to male harassment and the menace of male violence, exploitation, or sexual assault. Females live with a continuous scanning of our environments for their degree of safety—out in the world and in our homes. We experience being talked over, ignored, not seen, trivialized, etc. We live with the very real possibility of pregnancy, which can be life threatening, or binds us to the ultimate responsibility for the life and welfare of other human beings.

This is quite different from male experience which permits wandering freely about, not having to worry overmuch about predation or pregnancy and its consequences and responsibilities. (And joys, of course.) Female experience, our heroic journeys, contain largely unmined and unrecorded universal wisdom which modern Stoicism would do well to draw from.

(My own Stoic Journey)

Personally, I was attracted to Stoicism through the teachings of Epictetus. I encountered his Discourses in the early 1990s, when no one was talking about Stoicism or could pronounce Epictetus’ name. Stoicism was not a thing back then. The most powerful catalyst for positive personal change is when people learn what we already know. Have you heard the expression “the unknown known”? That’s what I’m talking about. For me, Epictetus articulated a way of life that is buried within us, and he supplied the right words for expressing what I had known deep down in a pre-verbal way.

I found this former slave with a limp immensely relatable. A slave knows what it’s like to be disvalued, unseen, misunderstood, or used by others to further their interests. He also offered up a prototype of human nobility which transcended sex. This is what led me to write the first modern popular presentation of Stoic thought, The Art of Living:  The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, which I am pleased became a perennial classic, often readers’ first introduction to Stoicism.

One of the challenges I faced writing the book was my commitment to preserving the authenticity and integrity of Epictetus’ teachings while using language in a way that was accessible to non-scholars, and ideally inviting and relatable to all modern readers. What I ran into over and over were the two different socially gender-encoded expectations of and definitions of virtue, which is a central aspiration of Epictetus’ Stoicism and of Stoicism more broadly. The notion of virtue carries different connotations for males and females. When the idea of virtue is applied to males, one might think of valor, bravery, or the ability to endure pain.

Female virtue still carries the historical and cultural onerous residue of sexual purity, chastity with its related implications of altruism, being demure, self-effacing, and gentle. These are indeed some legitimate components of virtue as applied to all people, but they must be tempered. Historically, female notions of virtue are essentially restrictive and male constructions of virtue are expansive.

In writing The Art of Living I chose to rely on the classic notion of male virtue, without specifying it as such. I kept in mind the Greek notion of arete, moral excellence, and the truly universal idea that a virtuous life is the essential prerequisite for a well lived life.

That said, I wanted to amplify an extant aspect of Epictetus’ teachings that frequently gets overshadowed by many of his other teachings. This is a virtue that is arguably, though not exclusively, a female super-power. It is, quite simply, the power to care. Think on that for a second. We always have the power to care:  about each other, to care about doing something to upgrade the condition of the imperfect world we find ourselves in; the power to care about small domestic beautiful things that lift the heart and create a chain of goodness radiating to other people. We have the power to care and be impelled to do something about the large injustices which affect and distort our society daily.  Caring unlocks the meaning that can always be found in this moment, the meaning that can be made in this moment.  The meaning that is always right at hand that can be marshaled for the good. But caring does not happen automatically. It must be actively invoked and applied.

While writing The Art of Living, I was constantly put in mind of the Stoic ideal of equanimity, a value Marcus Aurelius speaks of often. Females do a lot of quietly-in-the-background preserving and promoting equanimity so that families and larger groups can get along and cooperate in service of shared goals.  Our express ticket to equanimity is visiting stillness, or perhaps, settling the mind is a better way to say it. The value of a settled mind cannot be overstated. When a settled mind is our home base, ideally our default, which we win through practice, we have easier access to the answers we need, the best actions to take in the moment, an open channel to inspiration, and a vision for a way through.

There is so much value in this deliberate visit to stillness. Stillness is a tonic for meaninglessness, and it reminds us to slow down and just do one thing at a time. We can find or attend to one beautiful or useful action or word at a time and augment it. We can, for example, turn and say “I love you” to someone.

These days we are traversing low-level but constant trauma, and it’s fatiguing. But we have each other, we have the power to care, and we have the Stoic injunction to make time for stillness to recover our equanimity, which is an ideal foundation for anything. Equanimity helps us maintain an attitude of dignity and repose even in the most trying and desperate of circumstances. To find equanimity we intentionally engage with our inner life, which creates a state of calm that in turn creates more calm. Then we can use our equanimity as a force for peace and clear-sightedness in our families and communities.

The four virtues that are most talked about in classical Stoicism are Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom. Each of these virtues can be embraced as an ideal by anyone, but I’d also encourage us to enlarge our understanding of what contributes to the best possible life by including the virtues or values that are especially salient in female experience, of nurturance of others, caring—as I mentioned earlier, community building, protecting, the transmission of moral values in a non-sanctimonious way.We all benefit from this.

There is one other thing I’d like to mention as we increasingly move into integrating female’s experience and wisdom into the ever developing thing that is modern Stoicism. When considered in the light of modern times, ancient Stoicism has a problem with the passions. Many of the origin texts warn of the dangers of letting our passions reign supreme. This makes sense when you need to keep your head while you are a prisoner of war, for example. Reason, logos, is elevated over our passions as the preferred way of navigating our circumstances. But, I myself would never wish to listen to a gorgeous concert given by Yo Yo Ma stoically. And I will never make love as a stoic, certainly not in the spirit of ancient Stoicism’s skepticism of the value of passion.

A female ontological perspective is one that can easily embrace the values of passion, emotion, and intuition. We need, I believe, to integrate these into our modern Stoicism while being true to the spirit of Stoicism’s essential world view, otherwise, for lack of a better way to say it, Modern Stoicism will be too unilaterally stoic.


This is an amazing time for Modern Stoicism, because I see it, and I know others do, as a fluid, adaptable, permeable, inclusive and ever curious movement. I see modern Stoics reading the origin texts, but most importantly, talking about what they read with other people from all walks of life, Western and Non-Western, female and male, people of color, non-binary individuals. Every day our Stoicism expands in salubrious ways because we are listening to one another, which prevents us from being textual literalists and prevents this ever developing philosophy from ossifying and becoming irrelevant.

I see modern Stoics embracing the wisdom that is especially endemic to the female experience, the realization that life is so much bigger and incomprehensible than us and our puny dramas; that we can’t will circumstance to our preferences or tastes; that we have responsibilities to others; that we, through our choices and consequent actions, are the matrix of civilization.

What we want is a protean, adaptive, and evolving Stoicism. We want a Stoicism that can dovetail with people’s religious lives, if they have them, for example.

In a way, what is going on with Modern Stoicism in this moment reminds me a little of what happened in the 60s and 70s when Buddhism was first widely introduced to Americans post Alan Watts. At that time there was much criticism that Westerners were cherry-picking Buddhism, that it was being culturally eviscerated and reduced to merely mindfulness, uncoupled from the authentic richness of its origins and history. But had people not adapted these valuable Eastern and male-centric teachings to modern Western-style life, vast numbers of us would have been denied the richness of that wisdom tradition.

The strongest and most vital wisdom traditions are those that invite skepticism, decentralized authority, and extensibility. Modern Stoicism admits all three, so we are in good shape.

We need more people to be literate in Stoic principles because so many of us now are viewing the world through the eyes of intractable positions and special interests over a caring for the commonweal. These days our minds and hearts are exhausted from making constant choices of value:  aesthetic, moral, practical, and spiritual.  What is worthy? How easy it is to become dangerously mired in the trivial; it can be hard to wake up from simply managing, but not truly living. Where. does. value. lie.? What is virtue? These are the questions Stoicism returns us to. But in order for modern Stoicism to do its job, it (we) have to be willing to change and to listen. Our very dignity as human beings depends on it. We need to be good, awake, discerning choosers. This is where our freedom lies.

Thank you for listening. I’m so glad you joined us at Stoicon 2020. Thank you especially to Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Greg Sadler, and Phil Yacov

Sharon Lebell is a speaker, writer, composer and musician.  She is the the author of  The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness., and the co-author of  Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day.

The Stoic – December Issue

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization partners 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 REFECTIONS. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: John Sellars, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Jonas Salzgeber, Elizabeth Azide, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • JOHN SELLARS. Benefits of Journaling
  • SHARON LEBELL. Owning our own minds
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Waking up to impermanence
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Paying the price of tranquility
  • ELIZABETH AZIDE. Looking beyond ourselves
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. More on dichotomy of control
  • KAI WHITING. Is there a case for god?
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Reflecting on life
  • SENECA. On overcoming obstacles
  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.
  • And much more!