What Many People Misunderstand about the Stoic Dichotomy of Control by Michael Tremblay

Of all Stoic philosophy has to offer, the “Dichotomy of Control” (DOC) is one of the most popular aspects, and it is not hard to see why. In its most simple form, the DOC is often represented in the following way:

  1. Everything is either something we control, or don’t control.
  2. We control our emotions, behaviour, and reactions to situations.
  3. We don’t control anything else, like other people’s behaviours or what they think of us.
  4. If we wish to be happy/better people, we should focus on the things in our control, namely our behaviour and our reactions to situations.

One thing appealing about this representation of the DOC is its immediately applicability. It is a kind of “life hack”. You do not need to know anything else about Stoicism to find this concept both insightful and useful. Most impressively, it both provides comfort against the difficulties of life, as well motivation to improve.

In painful or stressful circumstances, reminding ourselves to focus on what we can control has an immediate calming effect. It gives us permission to turn our attention away from the circumstance causing us pain or frustration. And often times, such a switch in focus does not just alleviate the symptoms, but helps us solve the problem too, or at least realize whether the problem really concerns us or not.

Outside of these difficult moments, it gives us a growth mindset for self-improvement. It is the original call to switch from “outcome” to “process” thinking. If we want to be happier and better people, we should keep our focus limited to improving ourselves. It is also a call to be mindful and present in the moment, where we have control, and not the past or future, where we don’t. The DOC tells us not to dwell inappropriately on past failures, or be anxious about the possibility of future failure.

This way of talking about the DOC offers this major benefit without any further explanation of Stoic theory or ethics, and for a large number of people this will be enough and all they will want out of Stoicism.

My main concern about this version of the DOC, and reason or this blog article, is that it misrepresents the concept as it appears in Stoicism. This is ends up being very confusing for those trying to dig deeper into Stoicism (myself included). This blog post will try to explain away what I take the be the main misunderstanding concerning the DOC, and I will show why the Dichotomy of Control is a bad name for this concept, which is not about control at all.

Part 1: What Does “Eph’ ēmin” Really Mean?

The DOC is developed most thoroughly and clearly by the late Stoic Epictetus. His famous Handbook (the Enchiridion) opens with a clear articulation of it:

Some things are within our power (eph’ ēmin in the original Greek) while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

Epictetus, Handbook 1, Trans. Hard

Epictetus then goes on to talk about the consequences of not understanding this distinction. If we consider that which is not within our power as being up to us, we will suffer all kinds of negative psychological harms and vice versa. So far this sounds pretty similar to the DOC as I discussed earlier. The crucial change is that we do not find the word control anywhere. But why does Robin Hard translate this passage as things “within our power”, and not things “within our control”? 

To understand, we will have to quickly go over some Greek. The phrase being translated as ‘within our power’ is eph’ ēmin. These are two words. Ēmin is just a pronoun. It means “us”. The other word is epi, a preposition. It appears as eph’ because Greek words ending in vowels are often elided, which means their spelling changes before a word beginning with a vowel. The meaning of the preposition epi changes based on the grammatical case of the word it proceeds. In this circumstance, ēmin is in the dative case.

With that out of the way, what does this tell us about what this phrase means? Well, epi with a dative can mean a number of things, but most relevantly here, it means ‘to depend upon’ or ‘to be in the power of’. What Epictetus is literally saying is that something things ‘depend upon’ us, or are caused by us, and somethings do not. This is represented in another common way to translate the DOC, which is that somethings are ‘up to us’.

There is no mention here of ‘control’, and this was on purpose. The Stoics were much more concerned with causes, than with the concept of ‘controlling’ other things. Imagine someone insults me and I get incredibly angry. The relevant question for the Stoics is what ‘caused’ the anger? What does the anger depend on? They would say that the anger depends upon me. My beliefs and interpretations of the situation caused it. This is shown by the fact that someone else can get called the exact same nasty name and not get angry at all. So since I am the cause of my anger, it is my job to fix or resolve the anger. Does the other person’s mean comment depend upon me? Did I cause it? No, it caused by that person’s character, and thus they are the person responsibility for changing it. 

What we are left with is not a Dichotomy of Control, but a dichotomy of cause or dependence. I am responsible for, and should focus upon, the things that depend upon me, i.e. my beliefs, my decisions, and my character. These are the things that matter, which determine if I am a good or bad person, and If I live a happy or unhappy life. I not mistakenly think my happiness or value is determined by the things not ‘up to’ me. As you can see, control has nothing to do with this idea.

Part 2: What Is Wrong With The Word “Control

But what is wrong about the word ‘control’? At first, there is a large appeal to it. People want to have ‘control’ over their lives. They want to be able to determine the kind of person they are. And any philosophy that offers absolute unalienable control will strongly appeal to this desire, even if it is just control over something as small as our reactions and judgements. However talk of a Dichotomy of Control seems to lead to one of two major misunderstandings about Stoic philosophy, depending on how control is understood. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, control is the ability “to decide or strongly influence the particular way in which something will happen.” However, both of these ways of interpreting ‘control’ lead to misunderstandings of Stoic philosophy.

  1. Control as the ability to decide

First, there are those who take ‘control’ to mean something very strong. They think the Dichotomy of Control means that the Stoics believe we have the ability to decide, in any given moment, our reactions, our behaviours, and our choices. 

But the Stoics do not believe that. If I have an addiction, or am ignorant about something, or have a tendency to get very angry at the slightest provocation, the Stoics do not think I can just ‘decide’ not to be like that. They do not think I have control over these ingrained aspects of my character, if we take ‘controlling’ my actions and behaviors to mean I can just choose to be immediately different. Likewise, I cannot immediately change my habits, my subconscious ways of thinking, or my dispositions to act in certain ways in responses to trauma or stress. No Stoic argues that I can ‘control’ or ‘will’ myself into being a perfect person without years of strenuous work, and that we lack this ability is apparent to anyone who has tried and struggled with self-improvement. 

What the Stoics do believe is that I am the cause of these poor or undesirable parts of my character. These parts of my character depend upon me. And so they are my responsibility to change. This is a subtle point. I am responsible for my character. I cannot put the responsibility for who I am onto others, or past circumstances. But I also do not have total control over my behaviour. Changing takes work, time, and practice. But the more nuanced Stoic position is only apparent when we drop our focus on ‘controlling’ ourselves.

Whatever the Stoics thinks we have this kind of ‘control’ over, it is certainly less than the number of things that are ‘dependent on us’. If we think of the Stoic DOC as a division between things we control in this strong sense, we risk two problems. First, it might seem incoherent. The idea that we can totally ‘control’ our responses or behaviors makes Stoicism seem like an idealistic philosophy oblivious to complicated problems associated with addictions, habits, and emotional turmoil. And this would be a problem for Stoicism, if it was what Stoics were committed too. Fortunately it is not.

Another problem that comes up if we understand the DOC in the strong sense of control, is that it can make people feel like failures. It is easy to fall into thinking of this sort: “Stoicism teaches that we should be able ‘control’ our behaviors and responses. I cannot seem to do that. Therefore I am failing as a Stoic, or I am doing something wrong.” But, once again, often this kind of reasoning arises from a misunderstanding of the DOC.

  1. Control as the ability to strongly influence 

The second way of understanding the word ‘control’ is to take it to mean ‘to strongly influence’. I see this use all the time in athletic contexts. A coach, channelling his inner Stoic, might say something like: “You don’t control the opponents/referees/your teammates, you only control how well you play”. Or when someone thinks: “I can only control how I live, and the things that I do with my life.” This seems to be the idea that we control our ‘actions’, or what we do out in the world.  

This picture of ‘control’ is much too loose and includes far too many things that the Stoics would say are ‘not up to us’.  We certainly strongly influence what we do out in the world, but it is not up to us. For example, how well I play a soccer match is not ‘up to me’, because it is dependent on not getting the flu, or spraining my ankle, or being hit by a car on the way to the game. These are external things that can stop be from playing well. 

The problem with this view of the DOC, is that it lacks some of the most importance lessons Epictetus is trying to teach us. Yes, it is probably prudent for all of us to focus on developing things we strongly influence, like our hobbies or our personal relationships, instead of worrying about things we don’t influence. But you might still be find yourself disappointed and anxious if you start placing too much importance on these pursuits which aren’t ‘up to you’ in a Stoic sense. Not only that, but the Stoics will think you are thoroughly confused if you think what determines a ‘good life’ are these kinds of things which depend upon external circumstances. 

Now you might not want to be fully Stoic in your outlook in life. You might want to keep that sphere of focus to a medium size, which includes things you influence, like personal relationships, but excludes things you don’t influence at all. And this is your choice, but you should at least know that this is not the Stoic position.

Part 3: So What Is ‘Up To Us’?

If we cannot use the term ‘control’, then what is a snappy way to think of this division between what is up to us and what is not? 

My favorite way to think about it is in terms of what something external to you can stop. By external, I mean something that isn’t your character, choices, or beliefs. You might not have control over your temper yet, but that anger is still up to you, because what is stopping you from being calm is your own character, something internal. Travelling to a foreign country, or playing well in a soccer game, or being forgiven, are things not up to me, because these can all be prevented by circumstances external to me, my character, my believes, and my choices. 

This kind of division might be less immediately appealing than thinking of things we ‘control’ vs. things we do not, but ultimately it is more faithful to Stoic philosophy. And thinking about the DOC in this way should show that what seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in Stoicism are actually just misunderstandings. 

Michael Tremblay is a PhD. Candidate in Philosophy at Queen’s University. He is interested in philosophy as a way of life, and particularly enjoys Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism. You can learn more about his research at his website, or follow him on Twitter

Tickets for Stoicon-x Military Virtual Conference – 15th May

Tickets are now available for the Stoicon-x Military virtual conference on 15th May. Everyone is welcome to attend!

Live sessions will be recorded, so everyone who registers now will receive access later to videos. See the EventBrite listing for more info on the event. (NB: Some speakers and details are still being confirmed.)

You can reserve your ticket now using the checkout below. Payment is by donation online, an amount of your own choosing. Surplus revenue goes back to the Modern Stoicism nonprofit. Thanks for your support!

Investigating the Impact of Stoicism For Those At Risk of Anxiety and Depression – Findings and Reflections by Alexander MacLellan

On the 1st of January this year, my study [1] investigating the effects of practicing Stoicism in a sample of high worriers was published in Cognitive Therapy and Research, a well known academic journal in the field of psychology. It is, at present and to my current knowledge, the first study of its kind, and (I hope) the first of many to come. I am writing this post to share the results from this study in a somewhat more accessible form to an audience of people who are here for the philosophy rather than the psychology. For those who want to read it first or dig down into anything about the study, the paper is currently available to read here.

This whole process has also given me much to think about and reflect on and hopefully this can create some discussion points amongst those hoping to engage with and grow the modern Stoicism community.

Attentional Control Theory [2] is what underpins this study. This theory states that anxiety (though more recently, depression and other emotional dysregulation disorders are linked with this theory too) is maintained by inefficiencies in attentional control. Due to a variety of factors, the brain is no longer able to effectively balance unconscious emotional signals in response to stimuli with more rational, goal-directed signals. This means that people with anxiety, depression etc. are less able to ignore distracting stimuli (including internal stimuli like negative thoughts), less able to disengage from them, and therefore less able to remain task-focussed.

There has been much research resulting in findings that cognitive control trainings can improve anxious and depressed symptomatology by strengthening this attentional control system [3][4].

The question then raised by this is twofold: 1) Can Stoic practices and ideas help those who are at risk of anxiety and depression; and 2) If someone becomes more ‘Stoic’ does this also mean their cognitive control improves?

The Study

The study discussed here was a randomised controlled trial type study. I say “type”, as it was not on a sufficient scale to be accurately called a randomised controlled trial in the full sense. Nevertheless, it had some very important features, namely that participants were recruited from a multitude of sources and were, to my knowledge, not practising Stoics. There would be, therefore, less chance of a desire to prove Stoicism works biasing the study.

Participants were randomly allocated to either an active control group, a group combining Stoic Training (described below) and a well known cognitive control training. The cognitive control training is known as the adaptive dual n-back task, and involves participants continuously monitoring two streams of information (audio and visual), and having to correctly identify if the stimulus currently presented to them matches what was presented a certain number of trials back.

The Stoic training itself is something that you’ll likely recognise. It would not have been possible without speaking with Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, and so it looked very much like a Stoic Week platform. Each day participants were given several readings and then asked to complete some exercises that are ostensibly considered to be “Stoic”. These included:

  • listing any unhelpful judgements that day, and trying to recall and recreate how they came to be
  • predicting any difficulties they might face that day, and how they might deal with them
  • and, a daily summary of things they feel they did well, didn’t do well and didn’t do.

These exercises are all derived from the writings or suggestions of well known Stoics (namely Marcus Aurelius and Seneca). The daily reading selections are largely drawn from the works of classical Stoics. Participants completed 8 sessions of training and completed measures of anxiety, emotional vulnerability, self-efficacy, rumination and attentional control pre- and post-training.

Results and Interpretation

What we found was experimental groups had reductions in rumination by 18% and 13% respectively compared to the control group. Rumination is the tendency to linger on sad, depressive or hopeless thoughts, and is one of the biggest predictors of future onset of depression.

The group who completed the Stoic training also showed a 15% increase in self-efficacy, a factor known to engage positive coping in response to stress. This was in addition to some minor text analyses showing that over the training period, the language and statements participants used in their journaling became less anxious and negatively valenced (as measured by a content analysis software [5].

We also found correlations between an increase in Stoic thinking (as measured by a version of Tim LeBon’s Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale) and positive emotional experience. This is in addition to a decrease in negative emotional experience and an increase in self-efficacy.

This has several interesting implications. It shows that you can augment one type of cognitive training by supplementing it with a second type in order to target different cognitive processes (though this is fairly accepted at this point).

But these results also demonstrate that Stoic principles might objectively be a good thing. Decreased rumination and increased self efficacy is a promising sign in people who might be emotionally vulnerable, being a risk factor and protective factor respectively. The correlation between Stoic thinking and emotional resilience (as measured by one scale) is also encouraging.

There were no significant findings with regards to attentional control and anxious symptomatology, yet some results bordered on significance.

Problems and Issues

There are quite a few problems with the study though. The sample size was quite small. We also didn’t see much in the way of behavioural effects (nothing that would be responsible to report with such a small sample size). In addition, engagement was patchy, and people were taking part entirely online, meaning there was much out of our experimental control.

As a Stoic, you can accept what is out of your control, but it makes scientific enquiry difficult, and makes findings harder to stand behind. Someone might feel or respond in a very different way if they are in a different room, taking the test at a different time of day or if there is the business of life at home in the background; whereas there aren’t those problems in a lab. We also did not delve into the connections between Stoic thinking and cognitive control beyond seeing a non-significant link, and this is something that must (and will) be rectified in the future.

That’s not to mention the problem with attempting to classify and study the effectiveness of a philosophy. There is too much to operationalise, and as academia is an intensely conservative domain, an attempt to try something new or untested needing to be justified to the nth degree. (A bugbear I have in my short time writing proposals is the preference to examine minutiae of something relatively well established rather than look at something new – though it is completely understandable).

Psychology and philosophy were two related fields and are natural partners, however they are far from reconciliation at the moment. Whilst I can theorise and put forwards my own thoughts as to why this is (as I have done on my podcast) I believe that for Stoicism to be better researched and potentially be of more use to more people, those who keep the proverbial gates of the community need to relax the rules of entry.

Maybe there can be levels of Stoicism. Perhaps the philosophy can be moved forwards and advanced. Perhaps we can admit that something can be, or contribute to, Stoicism even if it wasn’t originally written in Latin or Greek. Equally, those in academic psychology might want to be more willing to change tack or entertain different ideas for advancing mental health research. With alarming studies coming out now suggesting that the last 50 years of research into therapies has, in actuality, brought us no closer to something that works reliably[6], I’d argue that this would be worthwhile.

This study shows, in a small way, that reading and applying Stoic principles can help people who seem to be vulnerable to developing anxiety or depression. It also shows that it is possible to do this research. That it is worth pursuing. That questioning is never a bad thing.

If you are studying psychology, or social sciences, or perhaps are an established academic I’d ask you to consider studying Stoicism in more settings, in more ways. I’d like to see all philosophies get looked at, for more ideas to be brought forward and debated. Stoicism and the principles derived from it are by no means accepted or liked by many people in either of the fields of psychology or philosophy. There is a skepticism about philosophical systems that echo the structure of religions (I’ll leave it for better philosophers than I to point out what may be correct or incorrect in that statement). But with more research, more publications, it is my hope that philosophy books can come to be prescribed and recommended as freely as therapy or medication.

If you enjoyed this post and have any questions/topic suggestions, or if you hated it/want to tell me why I am wrong, feel free to email me. I’d be very pleased to hear from you!

References:

  1. MacLellan & Derakshan (2021). The Effects of Stoic Training and Adaptive Working Memory Training on Emotional Vulnerability in High Worriers. Cognitive Therapy and Research. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-020-10183-4
  2. Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/1528- 3542.7.2.336
  3. Berggren, N., & Derakshan, N. (2013). Attentional control deficits in trait anxiety: why you see them and why you don’t. Biological Psychology, 92(3), 440-446. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.03.007
  4. Koster, E. H., Hoorelbeke, K., Onraedt, T., Owens, M., & Derakshan, N. (2017). Cognitive control interventions for depression: A systematic review of findings from training studies. Clinical Psychology Review53, 79-92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2017.02.002
  5. Pennebaker, J. W., Francis, M. E., & Booth, R. J. (2001). Linguistic inquiry and word count: LIWC 2001. Mahway: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 71. Last accessed online: http://liwc.wpengine.com/ on 12/01/2021
  6. Cuijpers, P., Reijnders, M., & Huibers, M. J. (2019). The role of common factors in psychotherapy outcomes. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15, 207-231. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050718-095424

Alex MacLellan is a psychologist starting his PhD work, focussing on the neural mechanisms of anxiety and depression with a special focus on philosophies and workplace wellbeing. He hosts The Stoic Psychology Podcast; and occasionally blogs at The Stoic Psychologist

Announcing Stoicon-x Military

We’re delighted to announce that following the success of the recent Stoicism for the Military conference, hosted by the US Army National Guard, the organizers will be running a new Stoicon-x Military virtual conference with the theme Courage, Honor, and Stoicism.

Attendance at this event is open to everyone. This includes active and retired military, other uniformed services, their families, and those interested in military history and current practices within a framework of applied Stoicism. Speakers come from different branches of the armed forces, in different countries, particularly the US and UK. You will also hear from academics and best-selling authors who’ve written on Stoicism and military leadership.

Date: Sat 15th May (Armed Forces Day in the US)
Tickets: Payment by donation, amount of your choosing (tickets available via EventBrite)
Format: Zoom Webinar (video recordings available later to attendees)
Duration: Approx. 5 hours of talks (plus 30 min break)

All profits (surplus) from this event will be donated to the Modern Stoicism nonprofit organization, which promotes discussion of Stoic philosophy and carries out research on its potential benefits.

See our EventBrite listing for up-to-date event details.

Cicero’s On Duties: A Guideline to Morality by Pete Fagella

Throughout history human kind has struggled with making the right choice. Moral guidance has been offered through religion, philosophy, law, and pure instinct. In antiquity, at a time of great civil strife, during the final days of the Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero created a foundation for western moral guidance that would last throughout the ages. De Officiis (“on Duties”) was written as advice to his son, and exists for us here, today. Cicero will be heavily quoted throughout this article. Unless otherwise stated, for the sake of simplicity, all quotations are to be assumed to be from Cicero.

Historical Context

Before we examine Cicero, we must provide some historical context. Somewhere near the year 140 BCE the stoic school was brought to Rome. Panaetius, the seventh leader of the school composed a work of moral guidelines that was entitled “on the appropriate”. Very little of his work remains and most of what we have has come from secondary sources. One of those secondary sources is Cicero who used “on the appropriate” as the backdrop for On Duties.

Cicero was born in the year 106BCE, however is career really took off around the year 81BCE and continued until he died in 47BCE. At this time in the Roman Republic, the goal of any young man was to have political aspirations. Like most Romans he began his career as an advocate in the courts. Remarkably, he was accepted into the Senate as a novus homo (new man), as his family was not a member of the Patrician class. He rose to the top of the political latter to the rank of Consul. As Consul he discovered a conspiracy to overthrow the government and was declared father of the country. In the first publicly recorded debate on the death penalty, Cicero moved for the immediate execution of the conspirators, he was opposed by Julius Caesar in the courts but ultimately won the case.

Cicero wrote many other works including, De Oratore (“on the speaker”), De Re publica (on the republic), De Legibus (“on the laws”), and many others. He was regarded widely for his reputation in rhetoric, law, and his devotion to the republic. Although he opposed Caesar during the civil war, Caesar pardoned him because he was still father of the country and respected by all.

 January, 44BCE: The Roman Civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey is over. Caesar is the victor and is elected dictator for life by the Roman Senate. During the war, Cato the great Stoic and friend of Cicero has committed suicide rather than serve under Caesar. Public support from the lower classes for Caesar has grown to disturbing levels, the aristocracy fears the republic is coming to an end.

The ides of March, March 15th, 44BCE: The normally used Senate chambers are unavailable. Caesar, now sole leader in Rome presides in the theatre of Pompey to address the Senate. It is a normal meeting, Cicero, now just a Senator is in attendance. Suddenly under the pretext of filing a grievance, one senator approaches Caesar. This was the signal to attack, many senators lunged at Caesar, daggers in hand. The assassination was violent, bloody, and perfectly in Cicero’s view.

Summer, 44BCE: The conspirators having misjudged public reaction to the assassination were forced to flee Rome, forming an army in Greece. Marcus Antony, now a Consul, seizes power and moves his base to what is now Spain. Cicero having witnessed the assassination, takes time to see what develops. He goes home to his villa and writes to his son. He creates a moral guideline to steer him for the rest of his life entitled “On Duties: (De Officiis) which consisted of three books. The first two having been influenced by stoic leader Panaetius and his work “on the appropriate”. The third book being of his own creation. There is little time to write, a new civil war between the Senate, Antony, and the Conspirators is inevitable.

On Duties

Cicero was himself not a student of the Stoic School, but rather of the Academy, which was based on the teaching of Plato. However, some overlap between stoicism and the Academy does exist. Cicero, in the beginning of On Duties cites the Stoics as being the best qualified to highlight our duties. Consequently, even though Cicero was not Stoic, On Duties was written as moral guidance from a Stoic perspective. 

 There is no aspect of life, public, private, judicial, domestic, personal, or involving others to which duties or responsibilities are irrelevant. All that is honorable in life comes from duties, all that is shameful is neglecting it. 

In his treatise he shows us that which our duties require. Book one shows us to do what is honorable, book two shows us how to do what is advantageous, book three shows us what to do when what is honorable conflicts with what is advantageous.

When faced with choosing an action, or deciding between more than one possible action, must we consider if the action is honorable or shameful, and out of multiple honorable choices or shameful choices, which is the more honorable and which is the least shameful. We must also consider if the action helps you achieve a goal by giving you an advantage, and if there are multiple actions, is one more advantageous than the other. Finally, we must examine if there is a conflict between what is honorable and what is advantageous.

Book One What is Honorable (Virtuous)

Each instance of honorable conduct falls into one of four categories: It entails perception and discernment of the truth; or safeguarding bonds amongst humans, by assigning to each his own in securing relations of trust; or it originates in the magnificent strength of a lofty, unconquered soul; or in a temperate, moderate order measured in word and deed.

This is of course talking about the four cardinal virtues first introduced by Plato, that are used as the foundation of Stoic philosophy, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.

“A salient characteristic of humankind is our quest for truth”. In seeking wisdom, we must accept three precepts: 1) our natural ability to reason, generally speaking, makes humans different than other animals, 2) what is true, simple and uncorrupted, is best suited for human nature, and 3) the wisest is he who perceives the truth, and can explain in the most accurate way. Immediately we are introduced to stoic connection to nature. However, Cicero goes beyond the Stoic precept that we must live in accordance with nature. He extends this concept to human nature. Living in accordance with nature is thus extended to mean living in accordance with your own personal human nature.

The quest for wisdom will inevitably be met with distractions along the way. We must consider two simple rules that can help us to avoid making errors in our quest. First, do not make assumptions, avoid this error by gathering all the facts. Often, we make judgements with only fractions of information that do not show the full picture. Occasionally those fractions present misinformation with regards to that full picture. If we than act on that misinformation we risk moving away from the very wisdom that we have sought.

The second rule that we must consider is that we must not waste time on unimportant issues. When we are seeking wisdom, we must first determine if what we are trying to learn is really essential to living a virtuous lifestyle. Life can be very distracting, often our passions can mislead us and we become consumed with unessential and unimportant issues. We must be aware of what we really need and stay the course.

There is nothing deadlier than the behavior of people who will act as though they are honorable men, even as they commit acts of great deception.

Justice from a Stoic perspective is synonymous with fairness with regards to how people should treat each other. This is not to be confused with criminal justice which will be left to the state to determine. Here we are talking about being just to one another, to act with justice with our human interactions.

The two fundamental precepts of justice are to do no harm, and to be of service to others. We must not cause harm to others for we are all part of a greater community and our motivation should fundamentally be for the common good and not self-interest, as that is the virtuous path. As we are all connected to this community, to attack a stranger is essentially the same as an attack on a loved one. We must be strong as courage struggles on behalf of fairness.

We provide service to others through acts of kindness and generosity. Through these acts we must remember to learn all of the facts of the circumstances of which we are involved. Taking precautions to ensure that our kindness does not hurt those who we want to help or anybody else is essential. We must also be aware of our own limitations; we are useless to others if we overextend ourselves. We must therefore have a system in place that ensures our priorities are met. We should not waste our time helping those who cannot be helped when we could have used our time to provide useful help elsewhere.

The application of justice and the prioritization of our resources must therefore follow this order: First, “To our country and parents because we are bound to them by the greatest benefits.” Second, “To our children and the entire household who look to us alone and have no other source of security.” Third, “To the relations with whom we are on the terms and often share even our possessions,” finally, if able and we are not overextended we must be just with those to which we can do the most good.

The brave and steady soul is not disturbed by difficult circumstances, or forced from his place, as saying goes. He relies on his ready wits and does not veer from a rational plan of action.

The brave soul shows courage and disregards externals, the brave soul will undertake great and useful projects, understanding the risks and difficulty involved.

Externals are the distractions in life that keep us from being virtuous. These externals can be as simple as the puddle we step in that upsets us because we are no wet, to be as extreme as the death of a loved one. Externals can also be our own ego and preconceptions that we must overcome. As a means to avoid externals we must assent only to what’s honorable and be free of emotional disturbance. We must avoid arrogant, disdainful and self-aggrandizing behavior. We must not be judgmental and be more accepting of people who keep to themselves to better themselves.

One who undertakes great and useful projects, understanding the risks and difficulty involved must “be disciplined and conditioned to be able to abide by rational advice while completing projects and enduring strain.” It takes far more courage to make peace then war, it is far easier to fight then it is to forgive.

Nothing is more deserving of approval or better suited to a great, distinguish man then clemency and the ability to make peace.

However, with success we run the risk of allowing our ego to run wild. We may even encounter others who have let their egos run wild. Stoicism requires us to teach or to tolerate.

Men who become uncontrollable and overconfident as a result of success need to be put through a round of training in reason until they recognize the fragility of human affairs and the uncertainty of fortune.

One further aspect of integrity for honor remains to be discussed. It involves modesty and a certain elegant manner of life, temperance, restraint, the calming of emotions, and due measure in possessions. The nature of decorum is such that it can’t be separated from good and honorable behavior. For what’s appropriate is good and what’s good is appropriate.

Decorum is of the greatest relevance to our present topic of moderation, for movements of the body and even more so the mind must accord with nature.

We are coming back to the idea of living in accordance with nature, and more so with our own human nature. We must create a virtuous plan for our lives that aligns with our own personal nature. For nothing is right if it is incompatible with our personal nature.

In all that we do we must show a degree of moderation and restraint. Living to excess with anything amounts to an addiction and thus dependance on externals for happiness. This concept must extend even to our character. As an example, when joking be witty and spontaneous, not extravagant or tasteless. Our joking must also reflect a basic decency of character.

From decorum our words, deeds, bodily movements and stances have created beauty, orderliness, and a polish suited to public presentation.

However, what is orderliness? Order is defined as fitting things together in appropriate places. While the place of an action is defined as the suitability of time. Thus, orderliness is knowledge of the proper occasions for an action. A simple example of this is that we know not to bring up politics or religion at our place of employment.

Decorum is the tool that we use to reach the virtue of temperance. We must teach ourselves how to behave in public, but also in private. We must not do anything to excess. Foul language is an excess of speech if we do so casually, gluttony is an excess of appetite if we continue to eat after we are full, adulty is an excess of desire, etc.

First and foremost, we need to decide who we are, what kind of person we want to be, what kind of life to lead.

Finally, with regards to what is honorable we must consider three basic guidelines: Impulse must obey reason, we must consider the significance of the action and apply neither more nor less attention than it demands, and maintain a sense of proportion in all matters of status and appearance, as we have an obligation to excel at the things we have under our control.

Book Two: What is Advantageous (Expedient)

Being honorable and virtuous does not mean that we must live as monks. We are allowed to have goals, dreams, and preferences as to what we want to do with our lives.

I must ask those critics to make a greater effort to understand our position. For in spite of our negative attitude towards the certainty of knowledge we are very far from being just intellectual drifters who flounder about without any idea of what we’re looking for.

How can we determine what action or decision is advantageous towards the accomplishment of our goals?

Paneatius said: “No leader, either in war or in peace, could ever have performed an important or beneficial actions unless he gained the cooperation of his fellow man.” Human being as individuals, as members of the animal kingdom are inherently weak. We do not exhibit great speed like wolves, we are not especially strong like bears, our teeth are small, we do not have claws, and our bodies are not well insulated from weather. Our survival as a species was only possible because of our ability to reason and our sense of community.

In the beginning, hunter gatherers banded together for a common purpose of survival. As tribes began to form and grow, cities were created. With the creation of cities was the development of laws and customs, which led to a distribution of rights. This spirit of humanity and of mutual consideration created stability, mutual respect, and the sharing of resources.

Any position that argues for advantageousness must begin with the premise of moral goodness, that nothing can be advantageous if it is not morally good. What is moral goodness? Moral goodness is the sum of three abilities: the ability to distinguish truth from falsity, the ability to restrain from passions, and the ability to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people. We have already discussed at length the first two abilities in the section above on what is honorable. To determine what is advantageous we must therefore discuss the ability to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people. Fundamentally, it is better to be loved then feared, and we must be careful only to trust those with whom exists genuine mutual loyalty and mutual affection.

Having established that moral goodness is a requirement for advantageousness it therefor surmises that we must first establish a reputation for moral goodness before we can gain an advantage. To establish this reputation, we must perform acts of goodwill, we must gain the confidence of our peers, and we must earn the kind of respect which would inspire our elevation to a leadership position.

To establish this reputation through acts of goodwill we have two options. We can either perform a service, or demonstrate a willingness to perform a service if you had the means to do so but don’t. The first of these options requires resources but has a greater effect, the latter option requires only mutual trust in the sincerity of your intent. The easiest service to perform for a person is to give them money, however we can also offer our skills as trade, or even our ears to listen. Regardless of what we do, resources are still required and are limited so we must be careful not to over extend ourselves. If we find ourselves overextended, we simply express the intent to offer a service and if you have a trusting relationship with that person, they will believe your sincerity and you’ll have established a reputation of moral goodness through goodwill.

 To establish a reputation of moral goodness through gaining the confidence of our peers we must first be intelligent, just, and honest.

If a man is not regarded as honest, the more shrewd and sharp he is the more he will be disliked and distrusted.

Using intelligence and charm to engage in a dishonest act is morally disgraceful.

The best of us will establish a reputation for moral goodness while earning the kind of respect which would inspire our elevation to a leadership position. Those of us who accomplish this will exceed all expectations of goodness towards a noble goal. They will be a decent person, regardless of what happens to them or around them. They will not become distracted by external circumstances, good or bad, while perusing that noble goal.

Having a reputation for moral goodness is useless unless that reputation is grounded in truth. Moral goodness requires kindness and generosity. The question of whether or not we should be kind and generous is moot, as we are required to be on a moral level. If helping others in need is within our means, we are obligated to help. These acts of kindness and generosity towards others can have additional benefits, as the people you help can gain the means to help others.

However, as resources are limited, we must maintain that we only help those deserving of help. We must never help a person who demonstrates moral disgracefulness.

The main rule in deciding when to offer your assistance is this. You should never agree to back a case which takes the wrong side against the right. For since the root of all lasting reputation and renown is justice, nothing from which justice is absent can conceivably deserve our support……those who have not perfected the art of wisdom may adopt the outward semblance of moral rectitude, but cannot possess moral rectitude itself.

So, what is the most advantageous? To achieve gains through a demonstration of moral goodness. Understanding our own capabilities and limitations while contributing to both to a community of all and a community of one. Uniting society without partisanship.

Book Three: Conflicts Between The Honorable And The Advantageous?

As the foundation to our society is socialization which created small tribes that developed into cities. We must remember that “what is advantageous to a single citizen and what is advantageous to the group as a whole should be the same.” This premise therefor suggests that it is against nature to steal from each other, even if not doing so allows our continued harm. For, an attack on others is the same as an attack on ourselves. “The neglect of the common good is against nature, it is patently unjust”, and if an attack on one is the same as an attack on all, then to attack one is against nature itself. Of all the virtues “justice is by far the most important virtue, the empress and mistress of them all.”

Chrysippus of Soli, third head of the Stoic school once said “He who runs in an athletic race ought to compete and struggle as intensely as he can. But in order to win, he ought not to trip or push over a fellow competitor. So, in life, it is not unjust for a man to seek what he needs for his own use; but to steal something away from someone else is, in fact, unjust.”

Nothing should be aspired to for its own sake except that which is morally right.

Whereas anything that is morally right is also advantageous, the deliberation of an immoral is itself is morally disgraceful, regardless of if it is followed by action. We must be morally good not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts.

The real issue is not whether moral goodness will be abandoned because of the great attractiveness of the competing (advantage) but rather whether the (advantageous) thing can be gained without moral disgrace.

We must make an analysis of what is to be done when conflicting duties are being compared.

Natural law is the ultimate source of guidance; it is in accordance with nature that no one should act in a way that preys on the ignorance of another. No greater obscenity in life can be found then when wickedness cloaks itself with the pretense of intelligence.

Nature requires moral goodness to be imbued with advantageousness, to suggest otherwise is an erroneous concept. “The belief that a morally corrupt thing can be advantageous is truly a ruinous concept” Fundamentally, nothing unjust is advantageous.

However, at times we find ourselves in situations where we are unclear as to what is the morally right choice as both scenarios may result in a morally questionable outcome. A good example of this would be whether or not you are required to keep a promise. For example, if you promise to return a phone call by a certain time and a family emergency occurs in between, you can’t keep that promise. So, what factors should we considers as to whether or not we must keep a promise.

 The value of keeping a promise is such that we maintain a relationship of trust and create a reputation for moral goodness. However, if in keeping the promise we do something morally questionable then that reputation is unwarranted. Keeping in line with the three principles of how to earn a reputation for moral goodness as discussed above, we must evaluation the content and the consequences of the promise in question. If keeping a promise harms you or the person with whom you made the promise then you need not keep that promise. If keeping the promise to a person allows that person to hurt others you need not follow the promise. If keeping the promise results in any morally disgraceful act than you need not keep the promise. We must always err on the side of moral goodness.

During the first of three wars with Carthage, Rome had a hero who was challenged with a moral dilemma. Marcus Atilius Regulus was a Roman Consul who was captured during a great naval battle. Upon his capture the Carthaginians decided to attempt to use him as part of a hostage exchange. He was sent back to Rome by Carthage to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Himself for Carthaginian Nobles, with instructions to return to Carthage if negotiations fail. While in Rome he was in a position to stay in Rome, with his family, and continue as Consul.

 He spoke to the Roman Senate, recusing himself from the vote, informed them of the Carthaginian proposal. “He said as long as he was bound by oath to the enemy, he was not a senator.” He then pointed out that the Carthaginian prisoners were young, vigorous leaders, while he was old. He advised the Senate not to accept the deal. Afterwards he returned to Carthage, knowing torture awaited him.

Keeping his word was the primary object in his mind. So, when he was slowly executed through sleep deprivation, it was still a better fate than if he had puttered around in Rome as an old, broken captive, a consul unworthy of the name.

 A generation past Regulus during the second Punic war, after the Carthaginian victory at Cannae, Hannibal captured 8,000 Romans who were left in the camp who did not participate in the battle. He attempted to use them to force Roman surrender.

The senate decided not to pay a ransom for these captives; even though it would have cost little money, it was believed to be better to send our soldiers the message that they should either be victorious or die fighting. Hannibal, having heard this news, became truly demoralized; for although Rome had suffered a huge disaster, the senate and the people still retained their fighting spirit. Thus, when we compare these options, what appears to be advantageous is eclipsed by what is morally correct.

When we are trying to make an evaluation as to how to handle a conflict with what is advantageous vs what is morally correct the answer becomes clear. Any circumstance that shows the outcome to not be morally correct is proven to be not advantageous. Advantageousness and moral goodness must concurrent. Advantageousness and moral disgracefulness are mutual exclusive, as it is always advantageous to be morally good.

Historical Context: What Happened to Cicero After “On Duties”

September, 44BCE: After six months away from Rome, and having completed at least three major philosophical works. Cicero returns to deliver the first of 14 major speeches against Marc Antony. Octavian, 19-year-old nephew and adopted son to Caesar, and heir to his fortune, raised his own private army with his inheritance from Caesar’s veterans. Cicero believing, he could control the young Octavian convinced the Senate to allow him to lead his army alongside two other armies provided by the Senate, to defeat Antony. Antony was defeated; however, the two commanders of the Senatorial armies were killed, leaving Octavian to absorb the entire force. Then the unthinkable happened.

In 43 BCE Antony, Octavian, and a third man, Lepidus reconciled and divided the republic into three. Creating essentially an oligarchy. A list of men was created between them to be executed and their wealth distributed amongst them. Antony demanded Cicero be put on the list in retaliation for the speeches made against him. In the end Cicero, realizing it would be futile to run, calmly waited for the executioner. In a grizzly display, Antony had his head and hands removed and nailed to the forum. This was a statement of what would happen to the hands the write against him and the head that speaks against him.

Plutarch, a first century Roman historian recalls an event,

A long time afterwards, so I have been told, Caesar (Octavian) was writing to one of his daughter’s sons. The boy had a book of Cicero’s in his hands and, terrified of his grandfather, tried to hide in under his cloak. Caesar notice this and, after taking the book from him, stood there and read a great part of it. He then handed it back to the young man with these words: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”

Pete Fagella has been studying Stoic philosophy for the past 10 years. He currently runs the New England Stoics philosophy group out of Boston but lives in New Hampshire. He is  currently studying Latin and for fun spends time with his children.

Stoicism and Desire Regulation by Ryan Bush

The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want… if you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy… Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. –

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 2

Virtually every philosophy and religious tradition has had much to say about the problematic nature of desire. Our desires can bend our beliefs and distort our worldviews. They can compel us to act against our own rational judgment. And crucially, they can cause us to suffer pointlessly. Because desires cause us pain and frustration when they are not satisfied, every desire we harbor is a potential threat to our contentment and stability.

The solution offered by popular wisdom is to try your best to secure the objects of your desire and maybe you won’t suffer so much. But seeing the futility of this endeavor, the Stoics offered a counter-intuitive approach: Rather than attempting to conform nature to your desires, you should do the exact opposite. Conform your desires to the state of nature. Much has been said about the Stoic preference for suspending desire and training it not to chase after externals. But how is this actually done?

The Stoics prescribed a number of thought experiments for achieving inner peace. But many of these ideas, when examined closely, boil down to methods for up and down-regulating desire – exercises for training our longings to operate harmoniously with nature. Many of the principles behind these exercises have even been validated by modern research. By learning to modulate our desires, we can not only reduce the temptations and increase the fuel propelling us toward our goals, we can eliminate a major source of needless suffering.

Desire Regulation

The first and most basic skill we must practice is the ability to up-regulate, or increase, and down-regulate, or decrease the strength of a particular desire. Cognition is deeply involved in emotion, and it is intertwined with our desires as well. Strong feelings of desire are typically accompanied or preceded by cognitive simulations and fantasies.

…Desire-related processing can be subject to a vicious circle of reprocessing and rumination that, in turn, increases the feeling of wanting and the motivational power of desire.

Wilhelm Hofmann et al., The Psychology of Desire

Participants of experiments who are given cognitively demanding tasks to complete are less likely to respond to stimulus with desire. In other words, if our minds are preoccupied or focused on something else, they are unable to initiate the thought cycles that heighten desire. So the key to basic desire regulation has to do with our mental closeness or distance from the stimulus.

The Stoics were well aware of this principle. They often advocated for objectivity in our perceptions and thoughts and viewed our unruly impressions as the source of our rogue longings. So to down-regulate a desire, you can distract yourself from the desired stimulus, focus on it in a purely objective, even alienating way, and cultivate a non-attached awareness of the feelings associated with the desire. 

Don’t let the force of the impression when first it hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’ Next, don’t let it pull you in by picturing to yourself the pleasures that await you. Otherwise it will lead you by the nose wherever it wants. Oppose it with some good and honourable thought, and put the dirty one to rout. Practice this regularly, and you’ll see what shoulders, what muscles, what stamina you acquire.

Epictetus, Discourses, book 2, chapter 18

Here, Epictetus expresses the common Stoic directive to be on guard against our own thoughts and impressions, always prepared to challenge them. But he goes further to show that understands the mental mechanisms that cause our desires to be heightened, and how to reverse it. He tells us not to engage in the detailed mental fantasies triggered by pleasurable stimuli, and to instead think “cold,” detached thoughts. He even points out that practicing this exercise can train us to do it automatically and build up our desire regulation “muscles.”

Marcus Aurelius offers some specific examples of down-regulation: 

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6

He reminds us to view food and luxurious possessions with objectivity and break them down into their constituent parts. The same can be done for sexual interests, entertaining activities, or money. But we may also seek to do the opposite. To up-regulate a desire, focus purely on the desired stimulus and all of its most positive aspects and delicious details. Increase your closeness and identification with the stimulus. This can be done to increase the intensity of a desire for a school lecture, a long drive, or a veggie burger. We will also see how it can allow us to embrace what seems to be a truly bad situation. 

Once we have a grip on the basics, we can move onto methods for regulating our desires in bulk.

Gratitude

Our minds are wired to acclimate to our circumstances and magnify the negative to completely fill our field of view. This tendency may be biologically useful by driving us to continually push for more, but it can destroy our contentment and make life seem like one big series of hindrances and hardships. But we can use the practice of gratitude to balance our perspective and desires. The Stoics made heavy use of gratitude, often reflecting on the unearned gift of simply being able to live in this world. Marcus Aurelius even spends an entire book in Meditations expressing thanks for everything he has been taught from various people in his life.

Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7

Marcus encourages us to think, not only of how fortunate we are to have certain things, but to consider the cravings we would have for them if they were not ours. In doing this, he invokes the up-regulation method mentioned above, leading us to indulge in ‘hot’ mental impressions for the things we already have, just as we are often inclined to do for things we do not have.

In this way, gratitude can be used as a method for up-regulating all desires for what one already has while down-regulating desires for what one lacks. It is an excellent strategy for countering the disappointment of failure by shifting emotional investment away from new gains and toward things that one already has, such as loved ones, achievements, or fortunate living conditions. Often the greatest barrier to serenity is too many desires for what we don’t possess and too few for what we do.

Numerous studies have found that people who consistently experience gratitude are more satisfied with their lives and experience more frequent positive emotions. They are also less depressed, anxious, lonely, and neurotic. These findings are not merely correlational; controlled studies that ask participants to journal things they are grateful for every week have consistently found a significant boost in overall life satisfaction and positive affect among those participants. Gratitude is likely so effective because it causes people to savor their positive life experiences, reinterpret negative ones, avoid constant envy and craving, and build stronger interpersonal bonds.

Negative Visualization

A related practice has been called negative visualization. It is closely related to the Buddhist reflection on aniccā, or impermanence, and the Dalai Lama has termed it “pain insurance.” When one initiates this practice, he reflects on the possibility of losing the things he has. He considers the possibility that all of his plans may fail, all of his possessions may be lost, and all those he cares about, including himself, can, and eventually will die.

It strikes some as depressing, but this practice goes hand-in-hand with gratitude. When we down-regulate our desire to possess and keep something permanently, we up-regulate our desire and appreciation for what we have in the present moment. This visualization technique can inoculate us against loss and reduce or eliminate the blow to our emotions we have to bear if things don’t go according to plan. The Stoics remind us that change is fundamental to the very nature of the universe, and that being mentally unprepared for change and loss make us vulnerable to suffering. 

This act of anticipating unpleasant events has actually been proven to minimize their emotional impact. In one study, participants were delivered a series of electric shocks of varying intensity. Those who knew the intensity of the shocks in advance experienced less pain and fear than those who received less intense shocks of unpredictable intensity. We can apply this insight by calibrating our expectations so we are never caught off guard by unanticipated shocks.

Expanded Self

Another idea often associated with Buddhism is the doctrine of anatta, or nonself. It serves as a reminder that we are not unified egos, but parts of an ongoing and constantly evolving process – an aggregation of uncontrolled perceptions and cognitions. Not discrete beings detached from all others, but inextricably tied to the collective of all sentient beings. But the Stoics were aware of this fact as well, often pointing out that we are all part of a “universal mind” to which we share a duty.

A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realising that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11

This powerful passage illustrates the sense in which we are all connected to one another. We often get caught up in our own egoic stories, which falsely convince us that we that we are separate and unaffected by the well-being of others. There are multiple problems with this limited perspective. As Marcus points out, the sense of separateness can lead to hatred and a lack of empathy for others that can cut us off from a crucial sense of community. But it also makes us vulnerable and fragile to perceived attacks to our identity.

Much of the pain we experience is caused not by events we wish to avoid, but by the identity we wish to have. The desires which cause us to suffer when we are hit with a painful insult are the desires to be a competent, lovable, and valued individual. But by contemplating nonself, we can down-regulate all identity-based desires by reminding ourselves of the flaws with the entire self-construct when circumstances clash with these desires to be liked or respected.

There is evidence that reflecting less on our personal life narratives and more on the expanded self improves well-being. A decrease in narrative-self thoughts have been found to result in greater by decreasing negative and mixed negative–positive emotions. This decrease in attention on the self is often achieved and studied through a practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is thought by some to have this effect by decreasing activity in the brain structures collectively known as the default mode network, which are associated with rumination about the narrative-self.

View from Above

The Stoics also made use of a method known as the “view from above”, which consists of contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, and the contrasting smallness of all of one’s petty concerns. This exercise is based on the same notion of the self as a part of an interconnected whole, but encourages us to step back and try to observe this divine whole and appreciate the small role that we play in it.

The Stoics thought the primary reason we suffered was because we are unable to comprehend and love nature in its entirety. When we understand that everything that happens is causally determined, we free ourselves from the blame and resentment of ourselves and others and from the anxiety of trying to control fate. When we come to see that what we naturally view as bad is derived from our limited perspective, we can put a limit to our sadness. And when we understand that the permanence of our possessions, relationships, and souls for which we long is unattainable, we can learn to love what is permanent.

To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now-and tomorrow, perhaps contempt.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9

It is hard to even read this quotation without feeling a humble relief over the ultimate triviality of our concerns. We are told to think of the many things happening throughout the world, near and far, past and present. The lives and journeys of millions of other people, all of whom felt that their problems were deeply important. He points out that even those who attempt to leave a legacy will eventually be forgotten. Contemplating these facts, though they deflate our sense of personal importance, can free us from our natural tendency to catastrophize our situations.

In his book, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson points out that this thought experiment has its place in modern therapy as well. Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, refers to the tendency of depressed patients to magnify their issues and take the “worm’s eye view” of their situations. To counter this, patients are encouraged to take an “enlarged perspective,” in which they distance themselves from their current circumstances, view them with greater objectivity, and contemplate them from a greater scale and timespan.

The view from above is a powerful method for putting the realities of life into perspective and stripping the emotional aspects out of a situation so it can be examined more objectively. It can be used to down-regulate all desires in bulk when one is overly invested in general, particularly when life becomes volatile. The more you study the great, harmonious ground of being, the less you will be affected by its permutations, and the more equanimity, calmness, and self-control you can attain.

Embrace

Many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her works

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3

Most people learn at some point to appreciate films that don’t have happy endings or to marvel at paintings that are beautiful in the way they deal with dark and ugly themes. Though not pleasing to those who have not yet acquired the taste and ability, we can learn to view life as one great work of art that is made more beautiful by both the good and the bad. We can look back on our lives and feel thankful for the successes, but also appreciate the failures and struggles. We don’t have to be crushed by every change of plans if we can learn to find the beauty and long for what is.

Though best known for trying to mitigate or eliminate desire, the Stoics advised to increase desire for ostensibly bad circumstances. When things don’t go the way you want, you have the option to mourn and wallow in self-pity. But you also have the opportunity to cultivate a desire in the place of your aversion. You can want exactly what has happened to you. By practicing Stoic embrace, or Amor Fati, you can find a way to see the good in events, as arising as a part of a grand scheme of nature.

Stoicism urges followers to take an attitude of radical acceptance of everything which happened to them. This allowed the Stoic to remain happy in a sense, even when her circumstances were ostensibly bad. When an individual learns to correct the distorted aims of her life and appreciate the workings of nature, everything that happens becomes an opportunity to not only accept reality, but to embrace it. To give herself up to fate, and let only the functioning of her own mind concern her.

The tendency to find positive interpretations for negative outcomes is often called positive reappraisal, which has been found by both self-reports and functional imaging studies to reliably increase positive emotion and decrease negative emotion. Its use is also correlated with enhanced memory, closer interpersonal relationships, and overall mental health. Resisting change or hardship often comes in the form of self-blame, rumination, and catastrophic thinking, which have all been linked to anxiety and depression.

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 8

Learning the ways of your desires and strengthening the skill of modulating them will require patience, but once you have done this, you will be able to use this craft in real time. When an obstacle stands in your way, you will instantly arrange your desires to avoid the emotional friction and focus your attention on responding to the obstacle. You can learn to adjust the dials of desire at will, largely eliminating the tendency to suffer over ungratified longings.

Ryan A. Bush is the author of Designing the Mind: The Principles of Psychitecture and founder of the Designing the Mind organization. Its central theme of psychitecture represents a new, modern way of viewing and iteratively improving your mind integrating wisdom from Stoicism, Buddhism, cognitive therapy, and more. You can learn more at Designing the Mind, and find DTM on Instagram and Twitter.

The Stoic – January 2021 Issue

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization partners with the Stoic Gym (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: Chris Gill, John Sellars, Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Sharon Lebell, Antonia Macaro, Jonas Salzgeber, Flora Bernard, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • CHRIS GILL. Stoicism and Christianity
  • RON PIES. Stoicism and Judaism
  • DONALD ROBERSTON.  Stoicism and Islam
  • ANTONIA MACARO. Stoicism and Buddhism
  • JOHN SELLARS. Stoicism and Epicureanism
  • MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI. Stoicism and Confucianism
  • SHARON LEBELL. My mama told me, but I didn’t listen
  • FLORA BERNARD. Words have power
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Scrape off your own faults
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. The golden trio
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Lives of the Stoics (Book review)
  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.

And much more!

A Stoic Approach to Parenting: Helping Parents and Kids Thrive by Meredith Alexander Kunz

With this post by Meredith Kunz, we continue the series of presentations from 2020’s Stoicon and the 2020 Stoicon-X events. This one is a summary from the talk Meredith provided for Stoicon-X Midwest.

In 2016, I launched The Stoic Mom blog to share ideas on parenting from a Stoic point of view. Today, more than four years later, we need parenting help and support now more than ever as we live through months and months of pandemic lockdowns. Being a mom or dad during Covid-19 has become an enormous challenge, beyond what we’ve ever experienced before in our lifetimes.

Consider these facts:

  • We’re all doing more childcare at home, whether it’s for younger kids or teens.
  • Around 40 percent of childcare providers have shut down, and children are at home with their parents.
  • Many schools are teaching virtually, and kids need help throughout the day.
  • Children can’t participate in activities such as sports, extracurriculars, or aftercare programs.
  • Some parents are working remotely and trying to keep an eye on kids at the same time.
  • Other parents have to cut back on work, take a leave, or even quit.
  • Other parents have lost jobs that they didn’t want to lose, and they are worried about supporting their families.

The takeaway: Kids need a huge amount of attention and support right now, and so do their parents.

On top of our current crisis, there’s another reason why being a mom or dad has gotten harder: The rise of “intensive parenting.” Today, the pressures to help our children succeed are strong. Studies show that American parents are spending more and more time and resources on extra classes, activities, sports, tutoring, test prep, and more for their kids. This is especially true in middle- and upper-income households.

From my experience with two children in the public schools in a culturally and economically diverse city in California, I see parents of all backgrounds striving to help their kids do well in school and in their future careers. As our kids get older, we all know that colleges have only so many slots and so many scholarships, and that our children are competing with others in our state, our country, and across the world.

So in the service of “what’s best for our children,” parents today are tempted to go to outrageous lengths to shape every single aspect of the future for their kids (if you look at the recent “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, you’ll see just one example what well-heeled parents are willing to do).

As a mom, I, too, have felt the desire to pave the way for my kids to succeed (never using illegal means, thankfully!). But I have realized that this is an impossible—and really a misguided—task. And it is not healthy for me, or my children. Instead, I turn to my life philosophy to guide my parenting: Stoicism.

Stoic parenting philosophy focuses on becoming more rational and mindful, and less anxious and controlling as parents, and giving our children more autonomy, especially as they get older.

Above all, we need to always bear in mind two things: what we truly want for our children at a basic level, and the fact that we have the power to not give our assent to impressions or mistaken beliefs based on social pressures. As a mother, what I want most for my children is to help them develop these key things:

  • Their character—using the Stoic virtues of practice wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts
  • Their ability to choose well and make sound judgments after questioning their knee-jerk reactions (questioning their impressions, in Stoic terms)
  • Their internal motivation to grow, learn, and thrive—and to act in the world creating positive change as citizens, individuals, and family members

I’ve explored this in my own life and I’ve been sharing it on my blog, The Stoic Mom. Now, I’d like to expand on a framework for how Stoicism can help us as parents get to a point where we can help our children develop their character in this way and act as a good role model for our kids. It starts with working on ourselves, especially in relationship to the world of other parents, kids, and society in general. (Note: When I use the words “we,” “us,” and “our” here, I am thinking of all parents and those in parenting roles.)

First, with Stoic life philosophy, we see that other peoples’ opinions just aren’t that important.

What’s important is living by our ideals and striving for the virtues, finding that moral core. And as long as we are working to develop our faculty of choice, our moral sense, and aiming towards the virtues in our decisions, then we are good, and we are good role models for our kids.

Do we really care what other families post on social media about their vacations, birthdays, fancy material goods, achievements? Should that influence how we spend our time and energy?

Second, as parents, must realize that many, many things are outside our control.

Stoicism’s core teaching about “the dichotomy of control” tells us to stop trying to exert control over things that are outside our power. There’s so many of these things as a mom or dad.

Here are some of the elements of our children and their lives that we can’t control:

  • A child’s individual personality, abilities, health, and interests
  • How a child gets along with other kids, and the friends she or he makes
  • The competitive nature of other people/environments
  • Deep-rooted structural issues: Inequities in incomes, schools, and opportunities that are difficult to surmount (we may be able to influence this, but can’t necessarily change it)

When we think about how we deal with some of the things outside our control, the first line of defense could be to start saying no to the thoughts that pop up about comparison of our kids and our situation with other people’s.

Third: As Stoics, we can use our spark of reason to figure out what is in fact reasonable to do as parents to support our kids.

It’s always within our power to say no to more activities as a mom or dad, things that just create busyness in our lives. I like to think about what Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“… most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

For me as a parent, things like bake sales fall into this category. I can say no to those, and make a small donation instead. Or organizing very elaborate parties. Or attending all my daughters’ sports practices. I’d like to add: Not doing these things does not make me a terrible mother, just one who is less stressed about being perfect in every way and saying yes to every ask.

I suggest trying to identify the kinds of supportive activities you actually enjoy doing as a parent, and the things that bring you closer to your kids and show them your values. And maybe even are fun.

For example, my husband had the chance to DJ at my daughter’s school walkathon fundraiser. He connected with the cause and the kids—who still talk about it. And I serve as a Girl Scout Leader, with over 5 years of volunteering, because I find it provides real character building for my kids—and me—through social service and outdoor challenges.And I’m always available for are homework help or discussions about friends or debates about ideas or family exercise outings.

Saying no to time-sucking things—for instance things we might be tempted to do just to look good on social media—is strongly supported by Stoicism. As Seneca wrote:

Nothing is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will, can oust us from possession.

Fourth: Accepting that our children are not under our direct control is critical.

In a way, it’s similar to a teacher and her students. Even Socrates, revered by the Stoics, reported that he had students whose behavior was awful. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model, and the rest is in fate’s hands. As parents we have more influence than a single teacher, but we nevertheless need to accept that there are limits. We still feel a very real sense of duty and responsibility about our children, but we can’t expect to mold them into exact replicas of ourselves, let alone better versions of what we hoped to become.

So, to sum up, Stoic philosophy enables me to cope with the pressures parents face today in healthier ways, and I think all parents could benefit from a dose of Stoic philosophy. And I also hope it’s helped set my kids on a path of well-reasoned choices that will serve them long into the future.  

I’ve learned a few key things about kids that have helped in this journey, too, that I’d like to share.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to think about how we can help kids develop their own character with Stoic ideals. First, I’ll share some general thoughts, and then I’ll talk about a few practical suggestions.

Today, many parents express love through consumerism or entertainment for their children. But the ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids. They believed that character is instilled through things like exercise, sports, and hard work. In other words, they thought that we develop virtue through work.  So even today, in a Stoic-inspired life, it’s more valuable what we give children to do, rather what material things we give to them.And it’s also what we show them that we care about, through our own actions, and what we teach them about as role models.

We should give children things to do that require effort on their part, and that are challenging.  This could be physical challenges. When our kids express interest in doing something brave, we encourage them to try it. For instance, pre-Covid 19, my daughters have gone on tough scouting trips and overnight camps, and learned to do things I would never have tried at their ages (backpacking, rock climbing, high ropes, canoe races, polar bear swims, sleeping out under the stars). My younger daughter literally rolled around in mud and made a bed to sleep in for 5 days out of tree branches. She loved it.

And on family outings, we try to do something outside of our comfort zone. It might be challenging physically, like hiking through a river or up a mountainside. Or challenging intellectually: museums and historical sites expose children to art, science, and history. Even if kids aren’t enthusiastic at first, they usually learn something.  Kids can also work on challenges in our communities and our world by volunteering. Mine have done service projects on pedestrian safety, mental health, feeding families of hospitalized, and helping the homeless.

Things are different today. Now, in a pandemic lockdown with virtual-only school, there are tons of new challenges that are tough for parents and kids, and overall, it’s not very positive. The isolation of staying home, rather than attending school or preschool; the need for constant supervision for younger ones; the boredom of staring at school classes on a screen; lack of time with friends and in social settings; temptations of entertainment and video games… and for some, dealing with sickness or financial problems at home.

But while it is very hard for us as parents to watch our kids confront difficult things—and we are dealing with many added burdens ourselves—there might be something of a silver lining. Maybe it will help our children build character.Because it turns out that recent studies have shown that facing challenges and even feeling uncomfortable can actually be a good thing for kids.  In fact, through new psychology research, we are discovering that keeping our kids perfectly protected from any adversity or challenge is actually harmful to them and, long term, it can create anxiety or depression.

The authors of an Atlantic article about this research wrote: “despite more than a decade’s evidence that helicopter parenting is counterproductive… kids today are perhaps more overprotected, more leery of adulthood, more in need of therapy.”

Today, my parenting philosophy is focused largely on autonomy …On raising independent adults.This approach was intuitive to me, and confirmed once I started practicing Stoicism: The strongest predictor for motivation in kids and teens is a sense of control over their own choices.

A great book on this topic is The Self-Driven Child, by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. The authors convincingly make the case that today’s parents often deprive children of meaningful control over their own lives, putting them at higher risk of anxiety and depression. And they add that parents’ own anxiety can harm their children’s well-being. They talk about how moms and dads can have a “non-anxious presence” for their kids, and stop micromanaging everything from their homework to their friendships.

As I discussed earlier, I think Stoic life philosophy can inspire us to be less anxious and more present for our kids in the moments when it counts. This is about focusing our attention on what matters, a personal connection to our children, and support for their moral or character development. And that kind of mindfulness and attention are right in the Stoic wheelhouse.

My kids call me or my husband out when we are distracted while we talk (for instance, looking at our phones). I give them credit. Having a family times of day, at dinner, or a family downtime, like a regular game night, helps us be present at specific times.

One other big picture idea about our kids: Let’s think about our children’s agency.

I’ve heard it said that Stoicism is a way of maximizing agency. Remember that kids aren’t the puppets of their parents, who need to orchestrate their every move. They are people. When they are old enough, they need to learn to make choices and commitments. They have to figure out what motivates them and how to spend their time. This is not easy, but it is worth the effort to try.

We can be good role models in this sense, showing the kids of decisions we make and how we choose to live our lives. And we need to devote time to actually explaining to our children how we arrive at these decisions. It comes down to this: When our children choose, and we are not forcing kids to do things, not saying “do this because I said so,” we are giving our daughters and sons a chance to become full people and make commitments of their choosing. And that is a worthy goal indeed.

So, this leads to an important question for Stoic parents: How should we present Stoic ideas to children?

With children who are very young, their own immediate needs and wants are paramount.

They are driven by hunger, fatigue, play, competition with other kids. They haven’t learned to use their reason, or  to fully understand cause/effect. They don’t acknowledge others’ needs or wishes – they are just too young. But studies in neuroscience show kids aged 7 to 9 are laying the structure for reasoning in their brains, and that they grow these areas a lot at around ages 12 to 13.

I think ages 9 or 10, or possibly as early as 8 or 9, could be a good time to introduce some Stoic philosophical ideas more formally, a few high-level ideas about the dichotomy of control, the three disciplines, the virtues, and questioning or impressions. But I think we could begin sharing the Stoic approach bit by bit with toddlers.Even at a very young age, we can already talk to our kids about 1) the things that are inside and outside of our control; 2) about the consequences of our choices; and 3) explain how to question our impressions—that is, our knee-jerk reactions to things.

I like to say, “Stop, drop, and question your impressions” (even though it’s more of a joke in my house, it gets kids’ attention!).

For example: One of my children always had trouble leaving playdates when she was a toddler, around age 3. She would get very upset about leaving a friend’s house when playtime was over, and she’d refuse to do it. So I started to explain the situation to her, to try to help her understand others’ perspectives as well as the consequences of her actions. The host family has their own schedule, I’d say, and that’s not in our control. They have to start cooking dinner now. Your response to them is in your control. You can change how you behave. Remember, you probably won’t get invited over here again if you don’t leave when you are asked to go. And what if it were our house? And you were hungry? What’s in your power to do in this situation?

So you can give your kids a sense for how they could respond, by painting that bigger picture, and using virtues without naming them. I worked on explaining how making a good choice will give them more options in the future.

Another way to help kids gain a Stoic mindset is to give kids simple daily choices, like would you like to eat pears or apples? Peas or sweet potatoes? Just limit it to two or three options at first. Choice is very motivating to children, and we can help them cultivate this faculty.

And for kids’ choices, it’s good to allow there to be natural consequences so that they can gain some wisdom from it. For instance, let’s say your child refuses to wear a jacket going out when it’s 35 degrees outside. If she gets cold often enough, maybe she’ll learn to remember her jacket. Or you can spell out the trajectory: “If you don’t wear this jacket, you’ll be shivering, and you might get sick, and then you’ll have to stay in bed all day by yourself instead of doing something more fun this weekend.”

I have just one more important point I’d like to make about teaching these principles to children: Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions.

It’s about cultivating positive character attributes and virtues, and finding joy, wisdom, and tranquility through making good choices and devoting time to positive things. It’s not about pushing down all the things that bother us, deep inside. (If you saw the Lego Movie, you might remember the character Unikitty. She suppresses her negative emotions to stay super bubbly and positive, up until she realizes she can’t anymore—and then turns red and explodes with violent and destructive rage!)

With negative emotions, what Stoics call “bad passions,” we can use Stoic-inspired CBT-style questioning of misguided beliefs, getting to the root of why we are angry or sad. Then we can try to resolving some of that turmoil by understanding it better, or letting it go. Because it’s not the thing that truly matters: it is our moral choices.

Once we realize that others’ opinions don’t really give us our worth as people, but that our moral core and choices do, we can feel a lot more peaceful. We can try to convey that to our kids too.Kids who are constantly worried about the judgment of others, in person or online, and be reminded of this principle. People will always be there to be judgmental of us, our parenting, and our kids. To combat the pressure, here is some inspiration from Epictetus:

 I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.

I’d like to end on a positive note, with the concept of joy. Ancient Stoics were not joyless, and Stoic mindfulness reminds us to live in the present, enjoy spending time with our offspring when they are young or any time, and sampling the “banquet” of life as it comes to us. And that’s what this is about: not only the responsibilities that we have towards our kids, but also the joy of having children in our lives. And when we let go of our controlling or competitive instincts and appreciate our children as human beings capable of developing their own character—as people who will someday become independent adults—we may find that joy comes much more easily.

Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism.  You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.