I and Mine: Developing a Stoic Self by Brittany Polat

Jack Coleman, the self-effacing former president of both Haverford College and the Ford Foundation, spent his sabbaticals living as a member of society’s most downtrodden groups: homeless person, sanitation worker, ditch digger, even prisoner. What began as an economist’s interest in labor relations turned into an effort to truly understand the people he worked with—and a personal challenge to prove his resilience and find the dignity in each person. Coleman was a committed advocate of prison reform, and as president of all-male Haverford he fought to allow women’s enrollment. In his lifelong quest for personal integrity, Coleman followed his own path, even leaving leadership positions when he felt he was growing too comfortable or entitled. As psychologists Anne Colby and William Damon write in their remarkable book Some Do Care:

The respect for another person’s dignity and humanity that guides and unites all these efforts is closely tied in Jack Coleman’s mind to his conviction that one must act in each encounter, in every one of life’s contexts, honestly and with the highest possible personal integrity. The inner harmony that represents self-knowledge and self-direction for Jack is closely related to this more ethically charged version of inner harmony that is integrity. Integrity, for Coleman, includes both internal consistency, the absence of compartmentalization, and a consistency between means and ends in action. “There isn’t a part of you that says, ‘I hate this aspect of me over here and what I’ve done there, and yet I go ahead and do it,’ while the rest of you is pursuing the other.” He equates this kind of internal consistency with wisdom.

p. 139

As a Stoic, I find Coleman’s example both inspiring and illuminating. He was neither a sage—for example, he once entered rehab for a severe drinking problem—nor a Stoic. But according to Colby and Damon, he had something we Stoics can learn a lot from: a strong moral self.

Colby and Damon interviewed Coleman, along with 22 other moral exemplars, to learn what inspired lifelong moral commitment among charity workers, civil rights activists, religious leaders, and others who devoted their lives to helping others. Through a lengthy consultation and nomination process, Colby and Damon identified the exemplars using the following criteria (p. 315):

  1. a sustained commitment to moral ideals or principles that include a generalized respect for humanity, or a sustained evidence of moral virtue
  2. a disposition to act in accord with one’s moral ideals or principles, implying also a consistency between one’s actions and intentions and between the means and ends of one’s actions
  3. a willingness to risk one’s self-interest for the sake of one’s moral values
  4. a tendency to be inspiring to others and thereby to move them to moral action
  5. a sense of realistic humility about one’s own importance relative to the world at large, implying a relative lack of concern for one’s own ego

After spending time with their subjects, Colby and Damon noticed several overarching themes in their life stories. One of the most important was the extremely “close relationship between self and morality that the exemplars establish” (p. 304). Over the course of their lifetime, these exemplars had come to fuse their own sense of self with their moral mission in life. As we see in Jack Coleman’s life, their personal goals were so entwined with their moral goals that they became integrated. Colby and Damon note that

All these men and women have vigorously pursued their individual and moral goals simultaneously, viewing them in fact as one and the same. The exemplars have done so without devaluing their own personal goals. Nor do they disregard their own fulfillment or self development—nor, broadly construed, their own self-interests. They do not seek martyrdom. Rather than denying the self, they define it with a moral center. They seamlessly integrate their commitments with their personal concerns, so that the fulfillment of the one implies the fulfillment of the other.

p. 300

This moral center is what we seek as Stoics. We want to define ourselves and our lives primarily in the pursuit of moral excellence, not in externals such as our financial worth, social status, or reputation. Like these exemplars, we want our morality—our Stoic values—to run through each activity we undertake. And like these exemplars, we want to remain active and effective in the world, working wisely toward bettering ourselves, society, and the wider world. Perhaps, as Colby and Damon suggest, cultivating a strong moral self is the key to lifelong moral commitment.

I think these modern ideas about the moral self can sharpen our contemporary understanding and practice of Stoicism. Once we rationally accept the Stoic idea that virtue is the only good, how do we translate this into our actual lives? Based on my past experiences—both successes and failures—I think this development may happen through the integration of self with morality, as Colby and Damon’s exemplars illustrate. Or, as Epictetus puts it in Discourse 2.22:

On whatever side “I” and “mine” are set, to that side the living creature must necessarily be inclined; if they’re in the flesh, it is there that the ruling power will reside; if in choice, the ruling power will be there; if in external things, it will be there.

To me it’s clear that “I” and “mine” mean our self or identity, and our task as Stoics is to locate our sense of self in our moral character rather than in external possessions or characteristics.[i] In the context of Stoicism, this would need to take place via our rational belief that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness. So the challenge for Stoics is: how do we integrate our beliefs into who we really are? How do we locate our sense of self in our moral character?

Fortunately, there are some really interesting ideas from contemporary moral psychology that can help point us in the right direction. I’d like to explore some of these ideas below, keeping in mind that our moral endgoal is internal (developing a virtuous disposition) rather than external. And by the way, I’m not saying the ancient Stoics actually held these ideas, just that these ideas can help us moderns, with our modern understanding of the self. (For a detailed discussion of ancient Stoic views on the self, see Gill [2006].) This overview is necessarily brief and therefore incomplete, but I hope it will get you thinking about your moral self and help you reach your own moral goals.

Self and Prohairesis

The moral self was proposed by Augusto Blasi in the 1980s as a concept to bridge the judgment-action gap in mid-century moral psychology. At the time, moral psychology was dominated by the ideas of Lawrence Kohlberg, who divided up abstract moral reasoning into six stages, then labeled people according to which type of reasoning they used. Research subjects who were capable of more sophisticated reasoning about hypothetical moral problems were considered more morally advanced. The problem was, as Blasi pointed out, that sitting someone down and asking them to resolve abstract moral dilemmas turned out to explain very little about real-life behavior. You couldn’t tell whether someone was actually brave or trustworthy based on their “stage” of moral reasoning.

Blasi suggested that the way to bridge the gap between moral judgment and moral action was to consider the moral personality as a whole. The Self Model of moral functioning he developed includes both agency and identity, along with important motivational roles for responsibility and self-consistency. Blasi’s work on moral functioning embraces the self, which he defines as:

that aspect of personality that underlies consciously subjective and agentic processes, in particular, processes of mastery and self-control, of ownership and appropriation, of conscious self-definition, and of internal organization and coherence

2004, p. 342

As a Stoic, I can’t help appreciating the areas of overlap between Blasi’s conception of the self and Epictetus’ notion of prohairesis, which is often translated as moral character, moral choice, or will. Prohairesis is a protean concept that acts as something of a Rorschach test for Stoics: everyone sees something different in it and describes it in different ways. But it seems to be some combination of volition and character; it is both your choice-making capacity and the disposition that leads to you make your choices. In any given moment, you may confront a choice about whether or not to take a nap, or whether or not to criticize a friend behind their back. In that moment, you make your choice. But your choice is not merely the result of a moment. It results from the character you have created in yourself over your lifetime. It is based on all your previous choices and the person you have become.

Compare Blasi’s above definition of the self—and also Colby and Damon’s description of the moral self—to a point made about prohairesis by A.A. Long:

Rather than treating the moral point of view as a disposition that is distinct from self-concern, [Epictetus] presents it as all of a piece with the natural or proper understanding of one’s human identity. That identity is one’s volition or prohairesis, the only inalienable thing that we have and that we are. It is in virtue of prohairesis that we are capable of conscience and self-consciousness—knowing ourselves, reflecting on who we are, and reasoning about how we should organize our lives.

p. 227

For Stoics, our sense of who we are is grounded in our sense of a “human identity.” Our desire for virtue derives from our understanding of human nature and our relative position in the wider world. And although we can and do speak of virtue in the abstract, when it comes to applying the concept in our lives, we primarily think of virtue in terms of what it means for us. Virtue is only virtuous because of the particular type of creature we humans happen to be. As Epictetus frequently reminds us, virtue looks different in every species. The distinctive excellence of a horse lies in its swiftness, and that of a bull in its strength. The distinctive excellence of humans is in our rationality, intelligent sociability, and our desire to understand the world. If we were a different sort of animal, our excellence might not consist in wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control.

But given our nature, excellence does consist in those internal characteristics. We define what is good for ourselves in relation to what it is appropriate for a human to be. Stoics believe that by acting in the way that is most appropriate for humans (becoming virtuous), we find deep contentment and meaning in life (eudaimonia). So our beliefs about what is good and appropriate for humans in general are translated into beliefs about what is good and appropriate for our own lives. Let’s look at how this process might take place.

Integrating Beliefs and Self

Blasi strongly emphasizes our personal agency in the process of making sense of our lives. We are not passive recipients of a moral self but active participants in its creation. This process entails “appropriating the moral norms, principles, and values that one cares about to the developing sense of oneself and integrating them in the sense of who one is” (2004, p. 342). This is very similar to what Stoics do as we work toward a virtuous disposition. We integrate our beliefs about the world—beliefs we have arrived at via our experience and rationality—into our sense of who we are. Blasi outlines how this process might unfold:

Initially, being and wanting to be a good moral person is one self-concept among many others, and perhaps it is not more important for the sense of self than many other self-concepts. At some point and in some people, a selection takes place: certain aspects of oneself are considered to be more “true and real” than many others from the perspective of the sense of self. Eventually, at least for many adults, the various characteristics that are recognized as elements of one’s definition are hierarchically organized, and the sense of self acquires unity and depth; the person thus acknowledges that a few aspects of himself or herself are the center or the essence of his or her being…

For these people new and important motives appear: the desire, indeed the need, to maintain one’s identity, to exist as the person one feels to be at the core; and also the desire or the need to maintain its unity, to be internally consistent. Intentionally acting against one’s core values and commitments is then experienced as self-betrayal and as a loss of one’s self.

2004, p. 342-343

Notice that Blasi says “a selection takes place.” I think it’s a continuous process of selections—in other words, of choices, or to put it in more Stoic terms, of assents. As we go about our lives, we are constantly confronted with choices about how to respond and what actions to take. Each time we assent to an impression, we are integrating our beliefs about what is appropriate for us into our selves. We are deciding which of our beliefs (out of many) are the ones we actually act on, and which others fade into the background. In this way we hierarchically organize, as Blasi says, which beliefs are most essential to our selves, thereby defining our selves by these beliefs.

Notice also the importance of self-consistency and integrity in this account of moral functioning. Once we develop a moral identity, we are strongly motivated to act in accordance with that identity or we risk internal conflict. Many people, unfortunately, often use self-deceptive rationalizations to maintain their sense of themselves as good and moral, “even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary” (Walker, 2004, p. 3). Obviously, that is something Stoics wish to avoid. It’s essential to be completely honest with ourselves about our own inner life, including our areas of improvement. Epictetus says that when we have truly learned to hold correct judgments (i.e., locating our own good in virtuous choice), we will “be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment” (Discourses, 2.22, 35).

For Blasi and also for Stoics, self-consistency is not merely an afterthought but potentially a driving force in inspiring us toward moral excellence. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, identified self-consistency as a key motivational component in living a good life; our aim should be “living according to a rationale which is single and in agreement, on the grounds that those who live in conflict are unhappy” (Arius Didymus, 75.11-76.16, cited in Annas, 1993). And for Colby and Damon, self-consistency means an integration of belief at every level of the self:

A true integration of reflection and action rests on a unifying belief that must be represented in all the cognitive and behavior systems that direct a person’s life choices. It must be represented at the level of habit, at the level of judgment, and at the level of reflective self-understanding.

p. 310

It’s quite possible that a desire for a coherent sense of self—being able to see ourselves as good and coherent people—could motivate our development toward moral excellence. Through a long process of integrating our beliefs with our identity, we might develop a moral self that we are motivated to maintain throughout all our thoughts and actions. In this way, our rational understanding of virtue turns into our choices toward virtue which slowly turns into a virtuous self. (Blasi, like the Stoics, thinks this doesn’t take place until adolescence or later, and in most people it may not take place at all.) Blasi suggests that:

Psychologically the motivational force of an ideal is far from being abstract, because it is progressively built on the accumulated effects of many concrete instances in which we actually experienced the importance, the value, and the beauty of the ideal. The ideal of justice, for instance, as psychologically felt, is neither constructed by learning the concept of justice and the various norms of fairness nor by being exposed to speeches about justice, even though all this may help; rather, it is formed by concretely experiencing in oneself and others the positive consequences of small and concrete actions of fairness and the damaging results of concrete injustices.

2004, p. 343

As we go about our lives, making our choices which accumulate into our character, we have a continuous feedback loop of information and impressions. Each assent to an impression reinforces that belief as part of who we are and what we stand for. We can build toward our virtuous ideal by incorporating each positive experience with (for example) justice into our developing sense of self. Every time we manage to act in a just way, we reinforce our perception of ourselves as just, thereby making our moral identity more important and salient to us. With each success, we come more and more to consider ourselves as just, which motivates us to continue acting justly. Eventually, perhaps, our sense of ourselves as just will be so complete that we’re actually unable to act unjustly.

In fact, this is exactly where Colby and Damon’s exemplars ended up. When probed by interviewers about why they had continued to devote their lives to others, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves, almost all of them insisted that they had no choice. They saw what needed to be done and did it—it was unthinkable for them to do otherwise. They had become the kind of people who simply couldn’t act unjustly.

As Stoics, we definitely want to act justly toward others. But we have the additional goal of inner excellence at every moment of our lives. When we wake up in the morning, when we eat dinner, when we bathe or comb our hair, we should do so as a principled and self-respecting person (Discourses, 1.4, 20). This level of commitment could quickly become exhausting, overwhelming, and discouraging if we see morality as an external set of rules or precepts to follow. Instead, we should inwardly cultivate our moral self—our prohairesis, if you like—with the long-term goal of becoming people who simply can’t act against our rational beliefs.

Cultivating Your Moral Self

If you want to be happy and you believe, as Stoics do, that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, then cultivating a moral self may be the best way to get there. At least, I’ve found this idea extremely helpful in my own life as a Stoic practitioner. So even though I’m not a sage, I do want to offer a few thoughts here on how we might go about developing a moral self.

Define your moral identity. Spend some time thinking about what kind of moral identity you want to have. What does it mean to be an excellent person? What would excellence look like in your own life? Excellence may be embodied differently in different lives because it is specific to the circumstances in which each person lives. It’s helpful to have a clear idea of what a virtuous disposition would look like specifically for you. Learn as much as you can about Stoic wisdom, and find role models wherever you can. Then think about the specific moral identity you would like for yourself. Working toward this identity will be your overarching moral goal.

Think about the big picture. Each of us is rooted in the larger context of a family, a community, a society, and the wider world. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to become a coherent and happy person by focusing only on yourself. Instead, we want to spend time reflecting on and appreciating the beauty and complexity of our world, thinking about how we fit into this picture as a small but significant part. It is only in this way that we can live in agreement with nature, accepting whatever life throws at us and recognizing that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness.

And think about the little picture. We also need to focus on properly managing our impressions as we go about our daily lives. Each time you assent to an impression that something is good or bad for you, you are contributing to your character. Our choices matter. Just don’t be too hard on yourself if you make the wrong choice sometimes—obviously no one is perfect! Forgive yourself, learn from your mistakes, and reset your intention for the next time.

Continue to grow throughout your life. Colby and Damon observed that their exemplars were remarkably open to change and growth throughout their lives, even as they steadfastly maintained their overarching moral mission. They continued to learn from the people around them and adapt to new situations that complemented their moral commitments. They were not rigid, isolated, or grim in their pursuit of moral goals, but rather active, responsive, and creative. We as Stoics should follow their example and continue to learn, adapt, and develop throughout our lives.

I’ve only been able to offer a brief overview here, a mere hint of what it would mean to have a Stoic self in the modern sense of the word. I think it’s an idea that should be explored far more by Stoics because it is essential to our efforts to better ourselves. Maybe you agree with the picture I’ve presented here, and maybe you don’t. But I hope, whether you agree or not, that thinking about it will help you on your journey toward wisdom and happiness.

References

Annas, J. (1993). The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Blasi, A. (1983). Moral cognition and moral action: A theoretical perspective. Developmental Review (3), 178-210.

Blasi, A. (1984). Moral identity: Its role in moral functioning. In W.M. Kurtines & J.L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Morality, Moral Behavior, and Moral Development (pp. 128-139). New York: Wiley.

Blasi, A. (2004). Moral functioning: Moral understanding and personality. In D. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral Development, Self, and Identity (pp. 335-347). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Colby, A., & Damon, W. (1992). Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan).

Gill, C. (2006). The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Long, A.A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walker, L. (2004). Gus in the gap: Bridging the judgment-action gap in moral functioning. In D. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral Development, Self, and Identity (pp. 1-20). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


[i] To be clear, I follow Gill (and Long) in believing this is a practical ethical point, based on an astute understanding of human psychology, and not a “metaphysical claim about the mind-body relationship” (p. 98). The ancient Stoics’ psychological holism, to use Gill’s term, is one of the crowning achievements of Stoic philosophy and should be maintained in modern Stoicism. While I am certainly not any kind of moral theorist, I believe the picture I’m presenting here is compatible with this psychological holism, as will become clear below. 

Brittany Polat writes about Stoic psychology, development, and motivation at Living in Agreement. She is co-organizer and co-host of the upcoming Stoicon-x Women conference. You can also find and follow her on Twitter.

Report on Stoic Week 2020 Tim LeBon and Greg Lopez

The ninth annual Stoic Week took place in October 2020. This year’s theme was: Stoicism during a Pandemic: Care for Ourselves, Others and our World.

From a research perspective we were investigating 3 questions:

  1. Is Stoicism a good life philosophy for lockdown?
  2. Can we predict who will benefit most from Stoic Week?[i]
  3. What is the relationship of Epictetus’s “3 disciplines “ to well-being and to Stoicism as measured by the SABS?

This report provides answers to these three questions. Details of the course contents, measures used and further statistical findings are provided in the appendices. Click here to read the full report.

1. Is Stoicism a good life philosophy for lockdown?

There were significant improvements in the well-being of participants over the course of Stoic Week.

 Life SatisfactionFlourishingPositive EmotionsNegative Emotions
Change13% Increase11% Increase11% Increase19% reduction
Table 1: Impact of taking part in Stoic Week

Other findings of note

  • Participants degree of Stoicism (as measured by SABS) increased by 9%
  • Participants’ stated their knowledge of Stoicism as having increased by 24%
  • Participants’ identifying themselves as  a Stoic increased by 16%
  • There was a significant change in scores on some personality traits, especially emotional stability (18% increase), agreeableness and conscientiousness, but no significant change in openness to experience or extraversion. (see appendix C for more details)
  • Some of the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviour Scale (SABS) items most related to well-being (#48 and #33) improved by very significant amounts, as shown in table 2 below.
#Statement% Change
48Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot.28
33I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.23
3If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel distressed.21
19I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.20
23 I cannot really be harmed by what other people say.19
45Every day I spend some time thinking about how I can best face challenges in the day ahead.18
4Having good understanding and good character is all that is required in order to be happy.17
8Bad luck could stop me being happy.17
39It is right to feel intense and overwhelming grief after a significant loss17
38When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation.17
Table 2 – SABS items with the biggest improvement

The top 4 items are strongly connected with Stoic management of the emotions.

The qualitative feedback given at the end of Stoic Week were also very positive.

Sample comments from Participants at end of Stoic Week 2020

  • Just want to thank you for offering the course. It has been so helpful to me in this time of … uncertainty pain and challenge.
  • It was wonderful and it taught me a lot about self control.
  • Well researched with depth of knowledge to a historic way of thinking!
  • This has been a fabulous free course and resource. The exercises are easy to follow and incorporate in my daily life.
  • Excellent experience.
  • Very helpful and thought provoking

How did Stoic Week 2020 compare with previous Stoic Weeks?

Stoic Week has consistently led to significant improvements in well-being since its inception in 2012, so a key question we were interested in is – was Stoic Week more beneficial in 2020 than in previous years?

 Stoic Week 2020  Stoic Week 2019  Stoic Week 2018Stoic Week 2017Stoic Week 2016Stoic Week 2015Stoic Week 2014
Increase in Flourishing11%7.5%8%10%10%10%10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life13%11.5%12%14%15%15%16%
Increase in Positive Emotions11%9.5%9.5%11%10%10%11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions19%17%14%14%14%14%16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours9%8%10%9%11%13%12%
No of participants at start16081725370228701803  25031953
Valid questionnaires completed at end527416852689270726566
Completion Rate30%24%23%24%15%29%29%
Table 3 Overall Findings Stoic Week 2020 –  Impact of taking part in Stoic Week

It can be seen that Stoic Week 2020 showed improvements over 2019 and 2018 in terms of most measurements. For example, flourishing increased by 11% – the highest ever and a nearly 50% increase on 2019. Life satisfaction and positive emotions also increased by more than in 2019 and negative reductions, which had decreased by a record 17% in 2019, increased even more (19%) in 2020.

It would however be premature to conclude from this that Stoicism works better in lockdown than in normal times. The changes could also be partly attributed to random variations or to changes in the delivery of the course this year. The course content was very similar to 2019, with additional lockdown-related examples being added. However there were 2 enhancements that may have improved the efficacy of the course.

  • As requested by many participants,  a reminder of the day’s materials were sent once a day by email as a “prompt”
  • Short instructional videos related to course material were provided for each day

 These 2 enhancements may be partly responsible for the improved completion rates, which increased from 24% to 30% , i.e. an  increase in 25%. Again, we cannot be certain whether this improvement was due to the above enhancements or due to the different conditions caused by the pandemic or both [ii].

2. Can we predict who will benefit the most from Stoic Week?

We also dove into some demographic and personality data to see if we could discover whether some people benefited more from Stoic Week 2020 than others.

In terms of personality traits, we found people who started Stoic Week 2020 with lower conscientiousness and lower emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism) benefited more from Stoic Week than those who started Stoic Week with higher levels of these two traits. More specifically, conscientiousness and stability were quite highly predictive of Flourishing improvement over the course of Stoic Week and moderately predictive of improvement in life satisfaction.

However, the other three personality traits we measured (openness to experience, extraversion, and agreeableness) didn’t really affect how much people got out of Stoic Week.[iii]

People who put in more time seemed to get a bit more benefit for life satisfaction (SWL) and emotions  (SPANE), but not flourishing. However, the relationship was very weak.[iv]

Finally, some demographic variables had some effect on the outcomes while others didn’t. Gender had no association with any outcome. However, younger people tended to get slightly more benefit, as did people who participated in fewer Stoic Weeks in the past. [v]

3. What is the relationship of Epictetus’s “3 disciplines“ to well-being and to Stoicism as measured by the SABS?

The 3 disciplines or topics  (topoi)  found in Epictetus’s Discourses were used by Epictetus as a pedagogic device for teaching Stoicism. Many modern Stoics including Pierre Hadot, Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Greg Lopez and Ryan Holiday have emphasised the 3 disciplines in their presentations of Stoicism.

The 3 disciplines are

  • The discipline of  desire  (or will)– concerned with  Stoic acceptance and with having the appropriate desires and aversions
  • The discipline of action  – concerned with doing the right things  and with virtue, duty and philanthropy.
  • The discipline of assent  (sometimes called  perception or  judgement)– concerned with Stoic mindfulness of how we perceive and judge things

Pigliucci & Lopez created a scale (here called the “Three Disciplines Scale”) to measure each discipline and to give a total score. In Stoic Week 2020 we measured participants on each scale at the beginning and end of Stoic Week. We could therefore answer these 3 questions

  1. How much each discipline (as measured by the Scale) is associated with well-being and the SABS
ScaleSWLSPANEPositive EmotionsNegative EmotionsFlourishSABS
 Discipline of assent0.30.30.30.20.40.5
 Discipline of action0.40.40.30.30.50.5
 Discipline of desire0.30.40.30.40.40.5
 3 disciplines (total)0.40.40.40.40.50.6
Table 4 Correlations between 3 Disciplines scales and well-being and SABS scale at the start of Stoic Week 2020

As can be seen in table 4, there was a moderate association between each of the 3 disciplines and each well-being measure. Unsurprisingly, the discipline of action had a fairly high correlation with Flourishing and Satisfaction with Life (SWL).  Less predictable was the relatively low correlation between the discipline of assent with negative emotions.  There was also a moderate to high correlation between the 3 disciplines and the SABS, providing some support for the scale’s validity

Does Stoic Week improve people’s scores in each of the 3 Disciplines?

Each of the three disciplines showed significant increase as a result of Stoic Week as shown in table 5. The discipline of desire increased the most. This suggest that Stoic Week does help people progress in each area.

Discipline of:DesireActionAssent
% Increase13.68.69.5
Table 5  Changes in 3 disciplines scores during Stoic Week 2020

Do changes in any of the 3 disciplines predict changes in well-being?

Finally, it is interesting to see how changes in the 3 disciplines relate to changes in well-being over the course of Stoic Week.

EmotionsNegative EmotionsPositive EmotionsLife SatisfactionFlourish
3 Disciplines Total0.390.370.300.330.43
Discipline of Desire0.310.310.220.260.34
Discipline of Action0.300.300.210.290.32
Discipline of Assent0.260.220.240.190.29
SABS0.450.380.400.360.53
Table 6  Correlations of changes during Stoic Week 2020

Table 6 shows the correlation between changes in each of the 3 disciplines, the 3 disciplines total and the SABS with changes in each of the well-being scales. The higher the figure, the more a change is well-being has been associated with a change in the scale. For example, changes in the discipline of desire have a .31 association with changes in emotions.

It can be noted that

  • Each of the 3 disciplines has a moderate association with changes in well-being
  • There is no clear “winner” amongst the 3 disciplines in terms of impact on well-being
  • The SABS has a somewhat higher association with changes in well-being than the three disciplines

Conclusions

  1. People benefitted somewhat more from Stoic Week during the pandemic than in more normal times. This is consistent with the findings of SMRT from earlier in 2020[vi]. It does not surprise us that Stoicism is particularly suited for a pandemic and so we would encourage organisations and individuals to run Stoic courses to aid resilience at such times.  It should be added that the positive results from previous Stoic Weeks would lead us to the conclusion that  “Stoicism is not just for a pandemic it is for life”.
  2. The innovations of including daily e-mail prompts and short instructional videos may have in part been responsible for improved  completion rates and should be retained.
  3.  There is a case for pre-screening people to see who would benefit most. These would  include younger people, those who haven’t done Stoic Week before and those having low starting conscientiousness and emotionality stability.
  4. The 3 Disciplines Scales provides a useful brief measurement tool. Each of the 3 disciplines is correlated with well-being, with the discipline of desire having the strongest association. Changes in well-being appear equally associated with changes in each of the 3 disciplines.

[i] Greg Lopez  wrote this part of the report

[ii] Drop-out rates for Stoic Weeks have actually been quite low compared to other on-line trainings – see https://www.learningrevolution.net/online-course-retention-rate/

[iii] These findings were consistent across all three of our main outcomes (SWL, SPANE, and Flourishing) and across metrics, including raw correlation coefficients, simple linear regression, and ridge regression using a random 80% sample from our data. The results are all shown in the table below. “Correlation” is the raw correlation coefficient, “Simple linear regression” is the non-normalized coefficient from a simple linear regression, and “Ridge regression” is the non-normalized coefficient fitting against 80% of the data with an optimal lambda selected via cross-validation.

[iv] By linear regression, every minute per day spent on Stoic Week yielded a 0.02 point increase in SWL (R-squared 0.01) and a 0.04 increase in SPANE (R-squared 0.02). There was no statistically significant effect of time on Flourishing.

[v] By one-way ANOVA via the Kruskal-Wallis test followed by pairwise comparisons.

[vi] See https://modernstoicism.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/SMRT-2020-Results-1.0.pdf

Greg Lopez is the founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. He is also on the team for Modern Stoicism, and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci, with whom he co-authored A Handbook for New Stoics.

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and  Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

Free Event: What is a Stoic response to the pandemic?

How should a practicing Stoic be responding to the pandemic? Please join us for a conversation where scholars and therapists compare notes. This is a Modern Stoicism discussion. Tickets available on EventBrite.

‘What is a Stoic response to the pandemic? – a discussion between Chris Gill, Tim LeBon and Eve Riches. Chris will suggest some possible Stoic responses and Tim and Eve will debate how effective those responses are, drawing on their own experiences as therapist and mentor during the pandemic. There will be a chance for participants to put their own questions to the group.

Chris Gill is a scholar of Stoicism and active in the Modern Stoicism movement.

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

Eve Riches is a mentor and teacher who runs a practical Stoicism online group and research project with Modern Stoicism.

This event will be delivered via Zoom.

The Proper Application of Preconceptions: Curing “The Cause of All Human Ills” by Greg Lopez

Let me ask you a question. According to Epictetus, what is the main cause of human ills? Think about it for a few seconds.

If you’re familiar with his ideas, perhaps you answered  “wanting what’s outside of your control”, or maybe “failing to get what you desire and failing to avoid what you want to avoid”. These are both solid answers. However, according to Epictetus, they’re not the ultimate cause of human ills — there’s something even more fundamental:

[T]he cause of all human ills [is] that people aren’t able to apply their general preconceptions to the particular cases.

Discourses 4.1.42 (Robin Hard trans.)

This is a weird statement for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s pretty absolute — Epictetus is telling us there’s a single cause for everything that ails humanity. That’s a bold claim to say the least. But if it’s true, then it’s important to understand and utilize as a practicing Stoic, since it’s supposedly responsible for every human ill!

The second reason that it’s a weird statement is that it’s not at all clear what Epictetus is talking about. For starters, what are “general preconceptions”? And, even if you know what they are, how would you, as a practicing Stoic, apply them to “particular cases”? And, most importantly: how is any of this relevant to your Stoic practice?

The goal of this essay, based off of my workshop at Stoicon 2018, is to answer these questions. Let’s start with the first one.

What’s a preconception? The simple version.

Another question: what’s this?

Blue Square | Blue square, Clip art, Online art

You probably answered” “a blue square”. If so, you’ve applied not one, but two, preconceptions to a particular case. The preconceptions were “blue” and “square”, and the particular case is the picture.

Based on this example, what would you say  a “preconception” is? What does it mean to apply preconceptions to particular cases? Take a few moments to think this through….

What’s a preconception? The complicated version.

The term “preconception” is a translation of the Greek work prolēpsis, which literally means “before-grasping/seizing” according to its etymology. You can think of it as the stuff that happens in your mind before you consciously grab hold of an idea.

However, leaning on etymology alone isn’t a good idea. To get a better idea of what a preconception is, let’s look at how the scholars Anthony Long and David Sedley define preconceptions:

The natural accumulation of experience of perceptible objects, through ‘many memories of a similar kind’, results in generic impressions or ‘conceptions’ of man, horse, white etc. …[T]he Stoics called naturally acquired generic impressions ‘preconceptions’, using this term to distinguish them from conceptions that are culturally determined or deliberately acquired.

Long & Sedley, 39

In other words, Long and Sedley state that preconceptions seem to occur naturally when we’re constantly exposed to similar objects. Most humans’ brains are built to abstract what’s similar about things that are repeatedly encountered, put them into categories, and name them. This process was what the Epicureans1, and later the Stoics, called “preconceptions”. These are “naturally acquired”, as opposed to learned (like Python programming) or culturally determined (like what makes for palatable food). While we form preconceptions naturally, we need quite a lot of practice to actually apply them accurately and well. This is exactly where Stoic teachers, like Epictetus, can help us out.

Why did Epictetus care about preconceptions?

While the proper application of preconceptions was important to Epictetus, he doesn’t seem concerned with the proper application of every preconception we have. Instead, he emphasized those preconceptions that have something to do with the most important questions human beings can ask themselves. For example, how can we tell what’s really “good” in life? What is it to be “brave”? How can an act be “just”, exactly? Here’s one example where Epictetus focuses on preconceptions related to value and virtues exclusively:

Preconceptions are common to all people, and one preconception doesn’t contradict another. For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honourable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases, as when one person says, ‘He acted well, he’s a brave man,’ while another says, ‘No, he’s out of his mind.’ That is how people come to fall into disagreement.

Discourses 1.22.1-3 (Robin Hard trans.)

Epictetus isn’t into preconceptions because he wants to sound smart at cocktail parties; he emphasizes their application because he believes that they’re the reason why people disagree about how to live a good life and what it consists of. And since Epictetus trained his students in a three-stage program to live a good life, it should be no surprise that we find the proper application of preconceptions playing a role in these three disciplines.

For instance, here’s Epictetus talking about properly applying preconceptions in the first discipline (named the “Discipline of Desire” by Pierre Hadot) of his three-pronged curriculum:

[I]f you know how to apply your preconceptions properly, why is it that you are troubled, that you are frustrated? For the present, let’s leave aside the second field of study, relating to motives and how they may be appropriately regulated; and let’s also leave aside the third, relating to assent. I’ll let you off all of that. Let’s concentrate on the first field, which will provide us with almost palpable proof that you don’t know how to apply your preconceptions properly. Do you presently desire what is possible, and what is possible for you in particular? Why, then, are you frustrated? Why are you troubled? Aren’t you presently trying to avoid what is inevitable?

Discourses 2.17.14-18 (Robin Hard trans.)

The goal of the Discipline of Desire is to remove passions. If you’re familiar with Stoicism, you probably think that passions come from wanting things that aren’t under your complete control. And, while you aren’t wrong to think this, it’s not the whole story. As the quote above demonstrates, there’s actually something more fundamental going on that causes us to desire what’s beyond our control. The cause is not being able to apply our preconceptions properly. Epictetus explicitly states in the quote above that we suffer “trouble” and “frustration” when we want what isn’t fully in our control (i.e.,what  is “possible”), and he says that the cause of these misplaced desires is precisely the misapplication of our preconceptions. This suggests that in order to change our desires, it’s necessary to learn to apply your preconceptions well.

We can see how applying preconceptions plays a key role in Epictetus’ second discipline, the “Discipline of Action” elsewhere in the Discourses:

For a rational being, only what is contrary to nature is unendurable, while anything that is reasonable can be endured. Blows are not by nature unendurable.—‘How so?’—Look at it in this way: Spartans will put up with a beating in the knowledge that it is a reasonable punishment.—‘But to be hanged, isn’t that past bearing?’— When someone feels it to be reasonable, though, he’ll go off and hang himself. In short, if we look with due care, we’ll find that there is nothing by which the rational creature is so distressed as by that which is contrary to reason, and that, conversely, there is nothing to which he is so attracted as that which is reasonable. But these concepts of the reasonable and unreasonable mean different things to different people, as do those of good and bad, and the profitable and unprofitable. It is for that reason above all that we have need of education, so as to be able to apply our preconceptions of what is reasonable and unreasonable to particular cases in accordance with nature.

Discourses 1.2.1-6 (Robin Hard trans.)

The goal of the Discipline of Action is to learn how to act in the world. This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What may be more surprising is that preconceptions are essential to Epictetus’ way of teaching his students how to act.As the passage above makes clear, the preconceptions of what’s “reasonable”, “unreasonable”, “endurable”, and “unendurable” directly relate to how we act in the world. In short: we need to understand preconceptions in order to act Stoically!

Epictetus also implies that having clear preconceptions is an essential part of the third area of his Stoic training curriculum: the “Discipline of Assent”:

Against specious appearances, we should apply clear preconceptions, keeping them well polished and ready for use.

Discourses 1.27.6 (Robin Hard trans.)

This quote is relevant to the Discipline of Assent since it is directly discussing the main task of that discipline: to learn what “appearances”, sometimes translated as “impressions”, you should “assent” or agree to. Note that Epictetus asserts that properly applying preconceptions is a key part of this task!

By now it is hopefully clear why Epictetus cared about preconceptions: because their proper application is necessary to practice all three of his disciplines. But the devil’s in the details — what exactly does it mean to “properly” apply preconceptions? According to the quote above, it involves keeping them “well-polished” and “clear”. Unfortunately, it’s far from obvious what Epictetus actually means by this flowery language — you can’t exactly whip out a preconception from your pocket and buff it to a shine! So, how would you, as a Stoic student, keep your preconceptions “well-polished” in practice so that they can be properly applied? There are three steps. The first involves using our rational faculties to dig into our psychology and make explicit what we already know.

Step 1: Make your preconceptions more explicit

Recall that the ancient Stoics held that, as we gain experience, our minds naturally categorize things in the world — in other words, we naturally form preconceptions. This is enough to get us by in the world. But the Stoics would assert that it’s not enough to flourish.

That’s because they believe that a key thing that makes us human is our capacity to think things through rationally. But just because we can think rationally doesn’t mean we all do. And, even if we do it sometimes, doesn’t mean that we do it consistently.  This is where Stoic teachers like Epictetus come into play: they provide philosophical education to students to help them live their best lives, that is to say rationally and in accordance with nature.

But education won’t do much if there are barriers in our way that stop it from being effective. Epictetus states that the primary barrier to our education isn’t from without, but within: namely, our presumptions. In fact, he  goes so far as to say that we can’t even start practicing philosophy until we get over a major hurdle within our own heads:

What is the first task for someone who is practising philosophy? To rid himself of presumption: for it is impossible for anyone to set out to learn what he thinks he already knows.

Discourses 2.17.1 (Robin Hard trans.)

So, which presumptions is it the first task of Stoic practitioners to rid themselves of? Those related to “good” and “bad”, “reasonable” and “unreasonable”, “endurable”, and so on. In short, Epictetus’ first task for would-be Stoic philosophers isn’t to practice the vaunted, famous dichotomy of control; it’s to to rid ourselves of the presumptions concerning our moral and value-laden preconceptions:

When we go to visit philosophers, we all chatter freely about what one should do or not do, about good and bad, or about what is right or wrong, and so apportion praise and blame, criticism and reproach, and distinguish some actions as being admirable and others as shameful. …Who among us doesn’t talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and about what is ‘advantageous’ or ‘disadvantageous’? For who among us doesn’t have a preconception of each of these things? Is it properly understood, however, and complete? Show me that it is. …In general, then, if all who utter these terms possessed more than an empty knowledge of each, and we didn’t need to set to work to make a systematic examination of our preconceptions, why do we disagree, why do we come into conflict, why do we criticize one another?

Discourses 2.17.2-13 (Robin Hard trans.)

Only once we work on our big psychological stumbling block by dropping presumptions about our moral preconceptions, are we then ready to start learning Stoic philosophy. And that learning begins by systematically examining our naturally-formed preconceptions:

Why, who has ever told you… that we don’t have natural ideas and preconceptions relating to each of these terms? But it is impossible for us to adapt these preconceptions to the corresponding realities unless we have subjected them to systematic examination, to determine which reality should be ranged under which preconception.

Discourses 2.17.7 (Robin Hard trans.)

How exactly can the burgeoning Stoic student execute their Stoic education well by systematically examining their preconceptions and then applying them well to particular cases? Fortunately for us, Epictetus actually lays out his method in Discourses 2.11, where he focuses  on the preconception of “good”:

Why don’t we seek [out a standard of judgement], then, and discover it, and after having discovered it, put it to use without fail ever afterwards, never departing from it by so much as a finger’s breadth? For that is something, I think, which, when found, will rescue from madness those who use opinion as their sole measure in everything, so that from that time onward, setting out from known and clearly defined principles, we can judge particular cases through the application of systematically examined preconceptions.

What is the subject of our present enquiry?

‘Pleasure.’

Submit it to the standard, put it on the scales. For something to be good, must it be something that we can properly place confidence and trust in?

‘Indeed it must.’

Can we properly place confidence, then, in something that is unstable?

‘No.’

Is pleasure stable?

‘No, it isn’t.’

Away with it, then; take it out of the scales, and drive it away from the realm of good things. But if your sight is none too keen and one set of scales isn’t enough for you, bring another. Is the good something that can properly inspire us with pride?

‘It is indeed.’

Is the pleasure of the moment, then, something that can properly inspire us with pride? Take care not to say that it is, or I’ll no longer regard you as being worthy of even using the scales! It is thus that things are judged and weighed when one has the standards at hand; and the task of philosophy lies in this, in examining and establishing those standards. As for the use of them, once they are known, that is the business of the virtuous and good person.

Discourses 2.11.17-25 (Robin Hard trans.)

This excerpt was long and may not be crystal clear, so let’s break it down.

The particular case that Epictetus uses as his example is pleasure. He wants to see if this fits the preconception of “good”. In other words, Epictetus wants to demonstrate a method of figuring out whether or not pleasure is actually good or not.

In order to systematically examine whether pleasure is “good”, Epictetus states that we need some sort of “standard”, or a “scale” by which we can measure such things. In the quote above, Epictetus offers two sets of standards by which to measure whether or not something is good: whether one can place confidence in it, and whether one can take pride in it.

And where exactly is Epictetus getting these two scales from? From human psychology and experience. Recall that Epictetus explicitly states in Discourses 1.22.1 that: “Preconceptions are common to all people.”

In short: Epictetus is saying that, deep down, everyone’s experience tells them that whatever’s good should be reliable and instill pride. However, we don’t hold this explicitly in our heads — Stoic education is needed to systematically examine our preconceptions, making what was once implicit become explicit. This is evidenced by the fact that Epictetus’ interlocutor readily agrees with him when he asks whether whatever’s good must inspire confidence and pride.

Epictetus also lists a couple more properties of our preconception of the good:

For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance?

Discourses 1.22.1 (Robin Hard trans)

Combining the properties of “good” from the above quotes, we now have a list of five properities that anything “good” must have:

  • We can place confidence in it
  • We can take pride in it
  • It is beneficial
  • It is desirable
  • We should always seek and pursue it

In short, by introspecting and rationally conversing with other people, we can dig up universal standards of what’s good and make them explicit. But digging up these standards isn’t the full story; it’s only the first step. These standards are indeed “scales” upon which we weigh particular cases. But we still have to know how to use the scales properly.

Step 2: Use logic to find particulars that don’t belong to a preconception

Instruments like scales are of no use if you don’t have the skill to use them. And a close read of Epictetus’ method reveals exactly what kind of skill is necessary to use his scales well, and to be able to confidently toss things like pleasure to the side when weighed against what’s actually good. The skill that’s needed is logic.

There are two reasons to think that the key skill involved in using the scales is logic. The first is the emphasis that Epictetus places on learning and applying logic throughout the Discourses (e.g., 1.7, 1.8, 1.17, 2.25). This may come as a surprise to people who recall Epictetus haranguing his students about logic. But it’s important to note that the problem Epictetus has is not logic, but people’s propensity to not put it to use to improve one’s character. Epictetus doesn’t discourage learning logic; he discourages simply stopping at learning some nifty logical tricks and calling it a day! This idea is clearly laid out in several places, including Discourses 3.6, Discourses 2.16.20, and Enchiridion 52, which is quoted below:

The first and most necessary area of study in philosophy is the one that deals with the application of principles, such as, ‘Don’t lie.’ The second deals with demonstrations, for instance, ‘How is it that we oughtn’t to lie?’ The third confirms and analyses the other two, for instance, ‘How is this a demonstration?’ For what is a demonstration, what is logical consequence, what is contradiction, what is truth, what is falsehood? The third area of study is necessary, then, because of the second, and the second because of the first, but the most necessary, and that on which we should dwell, is the first. But we do the opposite; for we spend our time on the third area of study, and employ all our efforts on that, while wholly neglecting the first. And so it comes about that we lie, while having at hand all the arguments that show why we oughtn’t to lie.

Enchiridion 52 (Robin Hard trans.)

The main takeaway from this passage and the other passages from the Discourses that are cited above is that Epictetus held that logic is essential to the goal of crafting a life worth living. However, it absolutely must be applied to that goal, or else you’ve stopped well short of your potential. Learning logic without applying it to what’s ultimately good and bad in life is like reading about working out and never actually hitting the gym, or watching videos on programming without ever writing code! Logic is a strong method or reasoning that guarantees that if you follow its rules and feed it true premises, it’ll spit out true conclusions. That’s some pretty powerful stuff! Where else in life can you get such guarantees? But if it’s left unapplied to the most important matters in life, namely what’s truly worth pursuing and avoiding, then, and only then, is it a waste of time.

The second reason for thinking that the skill needed to properly use Epictetus’ “scales” is logic is because he’s actually using logic in Discourses 2.11 when weighing particulars on them! If you’re not familiar with propositional logic, this may not be apparent. However, Epictetus’ penchant for logic (at least when it’s actually applied to the important things in life!) hopefully makes this claim plausible. But it’s probably best to break down how Epictetus uses his two scales to weight pleasure in 2.11 to make his use of logic more explicit.

Recall the first scale that Epicteus weighs the particular of pleasure on in Discourses 2.11:

What is the subject of our present enquiry?

‘Pleasure.’

Submit it to the standard, put it on the scales. For something to be good, must it be something that we can properly place confidence and trust in?

‘Indeed it must.’

Can we properly place confidence, then, in something that is unstable?

‘No.’

Is pleasure stable?

‘No, it isn’t.’

Away with it, then; take it out of the scales, and drive it away from the realm of good things.”

The “scale” here to measure the goodness of the particular (pleasure) is whether one can place confidence in it. This scale was derived in step one, through systematically examining our preconception of what’s “good”. But he puts that scale to use by making a logical argument. Here’s the argument’s logical form:

  1. If something is good, then we can place confidence in it (Premise, derived from systematic examination of our preconception of “good”)
  2. If we can place confidence in something, it is stable (Premise)
  3. Therefore, if something’s good, it is stable (Hypothetical syllogism)
  4. If pleasure is good, it is stable. (Instantiation)
  5. Pleasure is not stable (Premise)
  6. Therefore, pleasure is not good (Conclusion via modus tollens)

Premise 1 is in the form of an if-then statement or hypothetical proposition of a specific kind known in modern parlance as a material conditional. The first part of it (“If something is good…”) is known as the antecedent, and the last part (“…we can place confidence in it”) is called the consequent. Here, the consequent can be called a “necessary” condition for something being good, since the claim being made here is that people have to be able to place confidence in something in order for it to be good, and that if one can’t place confidence in something, that thing cannot be good. In other words: the first premise is a necessary condition for something being good. The goal of Step 1, making our preconceptions more explicit, is essentially to think long and hard about what the necessary conditions are that make something good.

Premise 1 and 2 are combined through a logically valid move known as a hypothetical syllogism. Since it’s a logically valid rule of inference, if premise 1 and 2 are true, premise 3 is guaranteed to be true, too. Premise 4 is relatively uncontroversial — if pleasure is “something”, then we can just replace “something” from premise 3 with a particular thing, like pleasure. Premises 4 and 5 are then combined to yield the conclusion in step 6 via another logically valid rule of inference called modus tollens.

In an ideal world, I’d take some time to go over all those ten dollar words I just used in a lot more detail, but this essay is already quite long, and there are lots of resources out there to teach you the basics of logic. All you need is the willingness to learn, a few hours of your time, and access to Google, YouTube, Brilliant, or an introductory logic book, and you’ll have the basics of the skills you need to use Epictetus’ scales properly.

But if you’d like some practice with logic, I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to try to put Epictetus’ use of the second scale (that of pleasure and the good instilling pride) in Discourses 2.11 into a logical form. I’d wish you good luck, but based on the fact that luck isn’t stable and we can’t place confidence in it, it can’t be good!

Step 3: Rehearse and act upon your well-polished preconceptions

After all that pen-and-paper work, it’s (finally!) time to get to what Epictetus called “first and most necessary area of study in philosophy” in Enchiridion 52 — the application of your principles, or in other words: practice!

It may be weird to a lot of readers that it took this long to get to practice. But I don’t think it would have been weird for students of Epictetus. From what we see in the Discourses, it seems like his students started with theoretical stuff before jumping into practice:

[T]he philosophers must train us first in theory, which is the easier task, and then lead us on to more difficult matters; for in theory, there is nothing to restrain us from drawing the consequences of what we have been taught, whereas in life there are many things that pull us off course. It would be absurd for anyone to say that he wanted to start off with the latter, since it is not at all easy to begin with what is more difficult.

Discourses 1.26.3-4 (Robin Hard trans.)

Calling diving right into practice “absurd” is a bit strong, but I think Epictetus has a point; it’s way easier to preach before practicing what you preach — and that ain’t a bad thing, since talking through the theory helps clarify it in your head and lets you know whether you even agree with the principles of Stoicism. After all, why bother practicing a philosophy of life when you don’t even buy its basic tenets?

Both questions that Epictetus’ students ask him in the Discourses and his Socratic and occasionally acerbic replies clearly show that getting the theory down was an essential part of Epictetus’ curriculum. And I also think it’s something that’s missing to a large degree in modern Stoicism, at least in the way Epictetus approached it. As I hope this essay made clear, Epictetus’ students first explored their preconceptions of what’s really good and bad in life in the classroom using rigorous logic to “draw the consequences” of their beliefs. Only once their preconceptions of good and evil were clear in theory was the aspiring Stoic Student ready for practice.

And how does one set about practicing? There’s been plenty written about that, including a book I co-authored, so there’s no need for details here. The typical Stoic practices like applying the dichotomy of control, journaling, or premeditating future adversity are all useful. However, understanding preconceptions and how to properly apply them can put these practices in a whole new light, and help guide you in how to use them well. In fact, I suspect that many Stoic practices are in fact rooted in the proper application of preconceptions:

  • The dichotomy of control is crafting your conscious, intentional thoughts to be in line with what’s truly good and bad in life.
  • Marcus Aurelius’ journaling was in large part a constant exercise to remind himself of his Stoic ideals of what is good and bad in life and what wasn’t.
  • Premeditating adversity aims to convince you at a gut level that what you’re afraid of isn’t as bad as you think it is (or more precisely: that it isn’t bad at all).

The Stoic psychological concept of the preconceptions of good and evil not only helps put many Stoic exercises in their proper context, but may also help you derive your own!

The next time you engage in your favorite Stoic exercise, I recommend you stop and think about how it relates to applying the preconceptions of good and evil properly before engaging in it. It may help clarify exactly why you’re doing the exercise, and even bring to mind some ways you can do it better.

Epictetus’ practical program in a nutshell

This has been a pretty long journey, so let’s summarize Epictetus’ three-step program of applying your preconceptions properly. While these steps below focus on what’s “good” since that’s the preconception Epictetus focused on in our primary source for this method (Discourses 2.11), this process could be applied to any value-laden preconception such as what’s “reasonable” or “brave” or “praiseworthy”:

Step 1: Drop your notions about what things are good and bad in life, and instead spend lots of time exploring what makes something good or bad. Create a list of properties that good and bad things must have. In short: make your preconceptions of good and bad explicit.

Step 2: Look at things that you or your society think are good or bad and “put them on the scales” you derived in step one. Do the things that you pursue in your day-to-day life or that other people tell you are good or bad actually have the characteristics that necessarily make them good or bad that you derived in Step 1? If not, they’re not actually good (and need to be pursued to live a happy life) or bad (need to be avoided to still live a happy life). Spend some time on this step making sure you’re convinced of your reasoning. You don’t have to feel that your conclusions are true at this step — just make sure you believe your reasoning by making sure all your premises are true in your view and your logic is valid.

Step 3: Now it’s time to practice! Rehearse your reasons for ruling out certain things you pursue or avoid that actually aren’t good or evil through whatever methods work best for you, from journaling to graded, safe, consistent exposure. Attempt to act more and more consistently with the values you derived in step 2, and try to pursue and avoid more and more things that survive their “weighing on the scales”. If you find yourself unconvinced on an intellectual level at any point, don’t be afraid to revisit steps 1 and 2!

Step 4: ???

Step 5: Profit! Well, probably not profit, but a few human ills weakened or even removed is even better.

Happy theorizing and practicing!

Acknowledgements

A special thanks to Kai Whiting for his very helpful input concerning this essay.

Select resources

Dyson, H. (2009). “Prolepsis and Ennoia in the Early Stoa”, in Sozomena: Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts, 1st ed..Walter de Gruyter.

E., Hard, R., & Gill, C. (2014). Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford World Classics) (Critical ed.). Oxford University Press.

Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press.

Greg Lopez is the founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. He is also on the team for Modern Stoicism, and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci, with whom he co-authored A Handbook for New Stoics.

Screw the Stoics: How a Neophyte Learned to Appreciate Stoicism by Leks Drakos

Even before COVID-19 hit, my 2020 could be summed up in one word: limbo.

I was caught in the loop of need-job-for-visa, but also need-visa-for-job. I had no idea what I’d do if I did have to move back to the country I hadn’t lived in for over a decade. I didn’t even know where I would go back to; a country never seems so vast as when you have zero connections there. For months, I’d been living in both terror and anticipation of Schrödinger’s visa sliding through the mail slot (Letterbox? Mailbox? Which English do I even speak now?) . Every day it didn’t come was a relief, but also another day of worrying, and wondering.

My partner would offer advice from Seneca or Marcus Aurelius on the various Stoic principles as a way of coping. Outwardly, I scoffed at the idea. What could these long-dead Romans say that would apply to my 21st-century problems at all? Despite fully believing the notion ridiculous, I did listen. When you’ve tried all possible solutions, the ridiculous ones don’t seem so ridiculous anymore.

Wisdom: Can I Fix It?

April 2020. Midafternoon. Somewhere in Kent: In February, the UK had its first case, followed by its first death. By March, the country was in lockdown. By April, we knew lockdown would be extended, but no one knew for how long. The optimistic said May; others said June. The pessimistic (realistic?) said definitely until September, at least.

This was one ambiguity too many: I had hit my limit of Not Knowing. On a sunny afternoon in April, I had my first lockdown-induced meltdown.

“The Stoics would say we shouldn’t be concerned with things outside our control,” my partner said.

“Screw the Stoics,” I said. “What do they know anyway?”

“Just read Marcus Aurelius,” he told me. So I did. We were under lockdown during a pandemic; what else was I going to do?

Meditations was not a revelatory experience for me. Most of what it said was exactly what I expected a powerful and privileged man to say about the nature of life and living. There were a handful of concepts that intrigued me, though, so I kept digging. Or rather, I started looking around. Stoicism has experienced a huge surge in popularity in recent years, particularly by the entrepreneur and tech set with the likes of business guru Tim Ferriss, New York Observer’s Ryan Holiday, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey among its chief advocates. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the company involved, but I was intrigued by the connection between business and philosophy. It’s not such an odd pairing, I realize now, but coming from a strict humanities background, I had some elitist ideas of my own.

In doing my research, though, I kept circling back to two central ideas:

  • Stoicism is more of a way of life than an area of knowledge
  • Most things are out of our control

The first, I found interesting. The second, I resisted. I was always of the mind that if nothing else, I could will the universe into submission. As I’ve gotten older, and this has repeatedly proven to be untrue, I’ve had to face the realization that there will be circumstances where I am completely helpless. That awareness was (is) one of the most distressing facts of life for me. But the idea of managing a zen-like acceptance of my fate was tantalizing in the way that calm is always tantalizing to those who’ve never had it.

I have many feelings, often intensely and all at once. I knew expecting to stop those feelings was unrealistic and unhealthy, but understanding what to do with them was certainly something I could benefit from. Every time a feeling felt overwhelming, I took a deep breath and asked myself: can I fix this? If the answer was no (which it usually was), the next question was: what can I do?

The first few weeks of doing this, I cycled through that internal flow chart easily 10 or 20 times an hour, most often about the same situation. More than once, I got frustrated. I thought: This is stupid and pointless and will never work.

But then, slowly – very, very, very slowly – it began to change the way I reacted to situations. The feeling wouldn’t go away completely; if something made me unhappy, I wouldn’t suddenly become overjoyed. I learned to endure the discomfort, though. I learned to be okay with not being okay.

Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways, more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings, so that they do not control you.

Sarek, Star Trek (2009)

To me, that was revolutionary.

Justice: Do they suffer?

June 2020. Mid-morning. Somewhere in Kent: I grew up with Catholicism on one shoulder and a vaguely pagan aesthetic on the other. As a result, I developed a deep appreciation for pageantry, ritual, and long, velvet robes. And, on the heels of the aesthetic, came the specific vocabulary of spirituality.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

With that spiritual language embedded in my brain, as well as living tooth and jowl with the moods of nature itself, the idea that all living things are connected took hold at a very young age.

My PhD thesis specialized in concepts of the human’s relationship to its environment, and the stories told to make sense of that – I naturally dipped a toe or two into posthuman concepts, which led me to animal theory and Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was just a minor sidequest en route to other ideas, but that one question stuck with me: Can they suffer?  So when I encountered Stoicism’s monistic idea of a universal substance present in every creature and thing, it not only fit naturally into my own preconception of the universe but resurrected Bentham’s question in my mind.

I had never been a particularly avid meat eater; as a student, meat products were often a luxury outside my budget, and afterward, a majority of my peers were vegan or vegetarian, so meat featured very rarely in my diet. Still, it was there. And while I had become adept at not thinking about the where or how my food was sourced, this moment, rereading Bentham’s words, I couldn’t let it go. I became a vegetarian. I don’t know about the accuracy of others’ experiences with this, but my peers were always very positive about the adjustment. “You won’t even miss it,” they said.

They lied. I went through many, many guilty, self-recriminating months of hamburger fantasies and regret over no longer being able to eat at that fantastic Caribbean barbecue place around the corner, but I persevered. It did not get any easier. Six months later, I still cannot walk by the chippy without salivating over the smell of battered fish and thick, greasy chips (I don’t even like fish), but I have found conviction in acknowledging four things:

  • I am a bad vegetarian, and that’s okay. It’s a journey, not a destination.
  • Alone, I can’t eradicate all suffering from the world, but I can reduce my complicity in it.
  • Even in my own life, I can’t remove all harmful consequences of my actions – for my survival, something somewhere will ultimately suffer – but I can still minimize the overall destruction I cause.
  • No creature is capable of being wholly good or evil, but we can strive toward either with our intentions.

Whatever motivations others have for their dietary choices, for me, the ability to maintain it is a belief in justice, nonhuman personhood, and the interconnectedness of all things.  

Temperance: Am I Really Living?

September. Late, late night. Somewhere in Kent: I am not good with the word “no.” While I’m not great at saying it to myself, I am absolutely abysmal at saying “no” to anyone else. Essentially, I have two modes: binge-watching Netflix all day unproductive and crashing through back-to-back 16-hour days. I overindulge or under-provide; there is no middle ground. Work – whether the day job or one of various side hustles – is the biggest culprit here, but it spills over into all aspects of my life. 

Working from home (I’d found a job by this point) added a whole new layer of intensity to the problem; how do you make yourself not work when you are literally living in your office? What do you do when you can’t rely on the traditional excuses – the materials aren’t accessible, a colleague is unavailable, you’re not physically in a position to do anything until X time? Not responding to “out of hours” IMs took a level of self-control I did not possess, and more than once I stopped some other activity to deal with some work-related task absolutely no one expected me to take care of at that precise moment. 

For weeks, I’d packed my days full of researching, writing, and proofreading articles, podcasts, blog posts, papers – anything someone sent my way with a blithe, “Can you do this real quick?” I lost track of the number of friends and family recommending I try yoga or meditation to destress. Even Twitter started trying to peddle mindfulness to me. 

And so, one very late night in mid-September I had to face the beyond-distressing realization that, of the list of tasks I’d assigned myself that day, I wouldn’t even accomplish half, and the ones I’d already finished weren’t done very well – at least, not the way I wanted them done. The further twist of the screw: the article I was working on was all about how important a healthy work/life balance is in our new WFH reality, with advice on how to achieve it. I’d like to say that my revelation was as dramatic as Arianna Huffington’s, but alas. I am a quieter soul, and no stitches were required as I switched off my devices and went to sleep for a very long time. 

When I woke up, before I was even out of bed, I was pinging my colleague to say I hadn’t actually finished the article I’d promised to send her. “No problem” she wrote back. “Send it over whenever you’re ready.” 

For me, in that moment, that small, simple statement was as profound a wakeup call as if I had passed out and cracked my skull on the corner of my desk. Burning myself out – filling up every spare second of my time with doing – wasn’t benefiting anyone, least of all me. As I’d end up writing in another article about Stoicism: Time is not a renewable resource, so spend it wisely. 

Having too much of anything really isn’t healthy – but it’s also not sustainable. If you work nonstop every day, eventually – either by choice or by force – you will have to stop. It may be due to your work quality, or an attentive manager forcing you to take the day, or, worse case scenario: you or someone else gets hurt because you’re not performing at your best. 

The opposite is true, as well. I remember getting “snow days” as a kid, and eagerly watching the news scrawl the night before to see if our county was on the list of schools closed the next day. There was an excitement to it; a feeling of getting away with something. The early days of lockdown had a sort of “snow day” feel to them for a lot of us, I think. It was an excuse to loosen up, wear comfier clothes, and move at a slower pace. 

But when the highlight of your day is changing from your day pj’s into your night pj’s and you can’t remember the last time you had a real shower, the feeling is a little different. It becomes a vicious cycle. You stop putting effort into something, which makes you feel a little bad about yourself, which makes that something seem even more difficult to do, which makes you feel worse, and before you know it, you’re not even putting effort into the little things anymore. You need more to your life than day pj’s and night pj’s. 

This has been one of the hardest principles to embrace. I am not a mindfulness/meditation type of person. I’ve tried it, and while people always say there’s no wrong way to do either, I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. Likewise, after writing for 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want to do is write more about spending my day writing. 

Still, since my “revelation,” I’ve accepted the benefit of self-reflection. I started simple: my morning shower. It is really difficult to write a blog post or participate in a Zoom meeting while you’re showering. It’s like a forced period of disconnect, and I decided to take advantage of that. It’s only 5 or 10 minutes, but in that time, I don’t think about my to-do list, or tasks that aren’t completed. Those 5 or 10 minutes a day are all mine to be present in the moment and practice some self-reflection. 

[Failure] helps us grow and encourages us to be more rigorous with ourselves – whether working harder, learning new skills, or just changing our approach.

Adam Harrison-Henshall, Process Street

I still struggle with the work/life imbalance; honestly, it was easier to give up smoking. It’s after 11 p.m. as I’m writing this, and I have definitely pole-vaulted past the standard eight-hour workday. Failing is okay, though. If I fail today, I’ll try a new approach tomorrow. In the end, I’ve still learned something.

Courage: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

November 2020. Late, late night. Somewhere in Kent: Like many in 2016, I truly did not expect the US election to go the way it did. It was a crushing shock that had long-ranging effects on both my little micro-world and the greater macro-world.

Even in 2019, I was not hopeful about the 2020 presidential election. I wanted to be, but I just couldn’t muster it. As disaster after disaster occurred – conflict, violence, destruction, discrimination – I lost even more faith in the American people and humans in general. 

By November 3, I thought I knew what the outcome would be. I’d already dealt with my personal feelings about that, and had been working hard to emotionally distance myself from what I believed was the inevitable result. And then, in the very late hours of that Tuesday (or the very early hours of that Wednesday), I couldn’t not look anymore. Biden hadn’t won yet, but the margin was already huge and the likelihood of Trump catching up was slim. Even though I wasn’t quite as ready to celebrate a victory as some of my peers, the relief I felt was phenomenal.

For the better part of a year, my partner had been trying to convince me of the benefits of negative visualization. Admittedly, I didn’t get it. My response was always: I don’t need to practice thinking about the worst-case scenario. I do that all the time anyway.

After the 2020 US election, I realized I’d been thinking about worst-case scenarios incorrectly. I’d been dwelling on the wrongness of the scenario, and not the solution. Not the plan. I do love a plan. With the election, I didn’t obsess about the outcome – positive or negative – but I prepared myself for the eventuality that it would be negative. I processed my feelings about it. I decided how I would respond. I thought about how it would affect my life. I also asked myself if there was anything I could do about it that I hadn’t already done (there was not).

On November 3, I was impatient, but I wasn’t a mess of anxiety. I was composed enough to go about my day, and even not think about what was happening for the most part. I did not end up wasting productivity and energy on doom-scrolling or staring at poll projections before the first districts had closed. I had prepared for the worst, and the worst hadn’t happened.

Uncertainty, Imperfection, and Living Immediately

December 2020. Early afternoon. Somewhere in Kent: There is no one path to Stoicism (as this piece shows). There is no guidebook of how it should be done. There are writings, yes, but at best, these are merely accounts of other practitioners’ journeys – their successes and failures, and their ruminations on both. Even the most Stoic of Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – admitted that, not only had they not mastered Stoicism, but no mortal human could ever hope to.

Stoicism is not a destination, and part of beginning to understand the philosophy is understanding that you can only ever practice Stoicism imperfectly. Once you accept that, you can proceed from there, and the process becomes immensely more manageable.

Back in April, the hardest thing about the pandemic was not knowing. It was uncertain how long the lockdown would last. It was uncertain how long the pandemic would last. I railed against every second of it – and I made myself miserable as a result. I’m not happy the pandemic happened, but it has allowed me to make my peace with uncertainty. I have a better appreciation for imperfections – in life, in others, and in myself. We are all struggling through our own journeys of discovery; the only person’s progress I should be concerned with is my own.  Most importantly, though, I have learned the value of this moment, right now, which will never happen again. 

So, one year on from my very first ventures into Stoicism, do I consider myself a Stoic? No, but I keep practicing. Maybe one day.

Leks Drakos is a rogue academic specializing in monstrosity, post-apocalyptic narratives, and the contemporary novel, as well as a content writer for Process Street You can also find him on Twitter.

The Stoicism of Groundhog Day by Tim LeBon

“It  feels like Groundhog Day … again”. And not in a good way. Anyone else been experiencing déjà vu, boredom or frustration? Help may be at hand from a rather surprising source – the very same 1993 romantic comedy Groundhog Day  which made the expression popular .

 In this article I will argue that

  1. The movie Groundhog Day is much more than just a romantic comedy
  2. The  messages to take from Groundhog Day are profoundly Stoic
  3. The  Stoicism of Groundhog Day is particularly helpful during the current pandemic

Groundhog Day Is Not Just Another Romantic Comedy

It’s easy to dismiss the movie as a likeable romantic comedy. Grouchy weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray is sent to cover the annual Groundhog ceremony on February 2nd in Punxsutawney, along with his producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. In the best tradition of romantic comedies, after initial mutual dislike, the pair gradually warm to each other. The film ends with Phil and Rita together, planning to live happily ever after. When Roger Ebert,  the leading film critic of the time, first reviewed Groundhog Day in 1993, he was quite modest in his praise. He called it “lovable and sweet” and didn’t even give it his top  4 star rating.

These days Groundhog Day is hailed as “the-greatest-high-concept-comedy-of-all-time”. Buddhists, Catholics and other religious thinkers have claimed the film as their own. Philosophical author Eric Weiner, writing in his recommended 2020 book The Socrates Express says that Groundhog Day  is his favourite movie and “the most philosophical movie ever made.”  Weiner  points out similarities between Groundhog Day and Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. Nietzsche states his theory in typically dramatic prose :-

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself.

Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science 341

You might like to try this “Eternal Recurrence/Groundhog Day” thought experiment out for yourself

The Groundhog Day Thought experiment

Design a day to relive for all eternity. Who would you be with, where would you be what would you do?

It’s a good exercise to help clarify your values. But there is one key difference between Eternal Recurrence and Groundhog Day. Phil Connors retains his memories, which opens up the possibility for him to learn from his mistakes. It is this twist that puts Groundhog Day in the tradition of redemptive moral stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like Eberneezer Scrooge, Phil Connors changes from being a self-centred, cynical and melancholy misanthrope to being an altruistic, positive and happy valued member of the community.

Twelve years and presumably several viewings of the film after his 1993 review, critic Roger Ebert admitted he had previously underestimated the film. He upgraded its star rating and  added it to his celebrated list of all-time  Great Movies.  Ebert explained that he now  saw it as a “a parable for our materialistic age” and added “The good news is that we can learn to be better people… He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil.”

What’s Groundhog Day Got To Do With Stoicism?

There may be more to Groundhog Day than first meets the eye, but what , you may well be asking, has it got to do with Stoicism? (I am talking here of Stoicism the life philosophy, not stoicism the stiff-upper-lip – they are quite different. See this piece)

In my view, the following four Stoic ideas below provide the key to understanding Phil’s ethical progress. I do need to note two caveats. First, I am not suggesting that the writers, let alone the character Phil Connors, had Stoicism specifically in mind – but rather that Stoicism provides an insightful lens to understand Phil’s growth from zero to hero. Second, I am  presenting a  somewhat simplified account of Stoicism. Had space and time permitted, other elements of Stoicism such as its worldview and Stoic mindfulness would have been explored in relation to Groundhog Day

1) We need to understand the difference between what we can and cannot control and focus on what we can control (the dichotomy of control)

2) It is not events that affect us but our interpretation of events (Stoic management of emotions)

3) Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character (virtue ethics)

4) We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state (when children) of egocentrism to rationality and virtue (oikeiosis and theory of moral development)

Let’s explore Phil’s ethical progress through the lens of Stoicism

1. The Dichotomy of Control. Stoicism asks us to be really clear about what we can and what we cannot control. Stoics argue that we are often too optimistic about the extent of our control over what happens to us. This over-optimism sets us up for frustration  and disappointment.

Initially Phil falls into this trap. He tries (and fails) to escape Punxsutawney. He tries (and fails) to get Rita into bed. Repeated failures lead to despair and eventually to multiple suicide attempts.  Eventually Phil comes to understand hat he does not have the power to leave town or to get Rita into bed and once he does this his despair is replaced by a commitment to new, more worthwhile objectives.

The dichotomy of control should not be misunderstood as a recipe for passivity. It wasn’t necessarily wrong for Phil to try to escape town or to woo Rita. The problem, according to Stoicism, is his failure to accept his fate calmly once he realises that these objectives are not possible. The Stoics developed a helpful metaphor to help us navigate a wise middle ground between commitment and resignation -that of the archer.  Like an archer, we should do our very best to hit the mark and achieve what matters. But then when we fail for reasons beyond our control, it is futile to do anything other than to accept this – we have done our best. (To complete the story, we must remember that the Stoics also believed that external goods such as winning at archery were of much less significance than internal qualities, such as practising diligently. This makes it easier to  accept when external things outside our control go wrong.)

Phil’s attempts to save the life of a homeless person illustrates this point nicely.  By this stage of the film Phil is becoming more altruistic and really wants to save the life of the homeless man who dies during the day. Phil tries everything – he gives the old man money, feeds him, even takes him to the hospital. Yet still the old man dies. A nurse explains to Phil that  there is nothing anyone can do to change this. Phil feels sad, but he  is not overcome with grief. There is a time for everyone to die, and Phil has done all he could have done.

2. Stoic Management of Emotions. Using the dichotomy of control is one helpful tool to  reduce  our vulnerability to distress.  But it’s not the only idea  in the Stoic toolbox. Indeed modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) owes a lot to the following  idea, to be found in Epictetus’s Handbook (Enchiridion)

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things

Epictetus, Enchridion, 5 (translated by Higginson, 1865)

One occasion when Phil could have benefitted from this idea is  the memorable scene where he laments his predicament :-

 What would you do, if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you could say, and nothing you could do, mattered? 

Soon after this, Phil attempts suicide. How could Stoicism have helped? Epictetus has the answer.

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’.

Epictetus, Enchridion, 1 (translated by Matheson, 1916)

Or, in the words of Rita :

I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.

Epictetus could not have put it better.

3. Stoic Virtue Ethics. Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character. According to the Stoics, we do not have to make a tragic choice between being happy and being a good person.  We can achieve both. The key is not to focus directly on “external goods” such as health, wealth and status (which are outside of our control anyway) but on internal qualities – specifically our moral character – which are within our control.[i]

The Stoics suggest there are 4 really important character qualities  – the cardinal virtues. These are

  • Wisdom – developing rationality and understanding  what matters most in life and how to attain it
  • Courage – the ability to do the right thing even when we may be fearful or experience discomfort
  • Moderation and Self-control – the ability to want the right things and to do the right thing even when we are tempted to do otherwise
  • Justice – living well in communities and the world at large. For Stoics, justice is a very broad concept encompassing kindness and compassion as well as fairness.

According to the Stoics, we all have the potential to develop these and other related virtues. The more we develop the virtues  the more likely we are both to be happy and to live an ethically good life.[ii] The version of Phil that we see on the first February 2nd would flunk any virtues test. He would score particularly poorly on justice and kindness.

As the film progresses, so does Phil.  He becomes a different version of Phil, one who tries to save the homeless person (showing the virtue of kindness), buys his co-workers coffee (displaying generosity) and is cheerful in his interactions with people who he had previously to whom he had previously been sarcastic, like his landlady (showing cheerfulness).  His attitude to Rita changes from trying to get her into bed to showing a genuine interest in her (developing  friendship).  Ultimately he spends a good deal of the day running “errands” to help those in most need (showing altruism).

In short, Phil develops from zero to hero in terms of justice and related qualities. Phil also grows much wiser. As we have already noted, he becomes much better at applying the dichotomy of control. He also understands, as Rita suggested, how the time loop can be seen as a blessing.  He comes to understand that predictability need not mean boredom so much as being able to anticipate events and respond skilfully to them.  On the last version of February 2nd we see, Phil helps a doubting bride goes through with a wedding, catches  a boy falling off a tree and  rescues some old ladies whose car breaks down.  It is only because life is so predictable that he can do all of this.

Phil also realises that the time loop means he has the opportunity to learn skills that in normal life would take too long. He learns to become a virtuoso piano player, ice sculptor and French speaker.

In the film this increase in virtue coincides with an increase in happiness. Phil is full of enthusiasm and positivity even before he finally wins Rita’s heart. Stoics would suggest this is no coincidence.

4. Oikeiosis and Theory of Moral Development. We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state of egocentrism to rationality and virtue. The ancient Stoics had a theory of moral development called oikeiosis. We all start off aiming at self-preservation but, as we notice our affinity with other humans, we extend our concern to them. [iii]   As we have seen, there is no better exemplar of this process than Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.

The Stoicism of Groundhog Day is Particularly Helpful During the Current Pandemic

I believe that we can all learn from Groundhog Day – even more so in our current predicament. In this final section I want to briefly suggest some ways in which those four key Stoic ideas that were helpful to Phil Connors can also help us.

1) The dichotomy of control

Develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot control in lockdown
The skill to focus on those things you can control
And the wisdom to tell the difference

The first tip is to let go of trying to control the things you cannot – for example government policy, what other people do and the difficulty of travel.  Instead focus on the things that Stoics argue are within your control – your thinking and your behaviour. Tips 2,3 and 4 below explain how.

We should also bear in mind our potential to adapt so that we think about what we can do rather than what we cannot do – for example – I cannot play bridge at my club, but I can play bridge virtually. I cannot drive to see my friends, but I can see them via zoom. I cannot go for a walk to the next county, but I can do a decent walk from my house.

2) Stoic management of emotions

Notice what thinking is making you upset and develop a different and more helpful perspective.

 Particularly unhelpful thoughts might include

  • “This is going to last forever”
  • “There is nothing I can do that matters”
  • “I can’t do anything that I want anymore”

Learn to challenge these with alternative perspectives, such as

  • “As people get vaccinated the lockdowns will ease”
  • “I can do plenty that matters – in fact more people need help than ever”
  • “I may not be able to do exactly what I want – but I can adapt. For instance, I can’t see my friends physically but I can see them on Zoom. I can’t go to my club to play bridge, but I can play  virtually using the internet.”

3) Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character (virtue ethics)

Quit focussing on external goods, which are harder to obtain in the pandemic and focus instead of developing your character.

The pandemic might be the perfect time to develop your skills and internal qualities. Like Phil, you could learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language.  Or you could use it to build up your meditation or yoga practice.   What skill or hobby can you develop?  More importantly, according to the Stoics, you should take the opportunity to develop the virtues.  Like Phil, you might find that justice and wisdom are particularly good virtues to focus on in your own Groundhog Day experience.[iv] 

4) We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state of egocentrism to rationality and virtue (oikeiosis and theory of moral development)

Use the pandemic to accelerate your ethical progress.

 In over 40 years  before Groundhog Day Phil Connors had made virtually no ethical progress. Then in one day (admittedly one repeated many times) he progressed  to a state akin to the legendary “Stoic sage”.  Could you use your Groundhog Day experience to make similar progress?

I hope this article may prove of some practical help. It might even inspire some of you watch Groundhog Day one more time – and then maybe another time, and then another …


[i] See https://modernstoicism.com/stoic-values-clarification-part-2-by-chris-gill-and-tim-lebon/ for a discussion further exploring the relationship between the virtues and happiness

[ii] See https://medium.com/@timlebon/how-stoicism-can-help-at-a-time-of-crisis-part-iii-96051d5e34 for a humorous exploration of the benefits of internal qualities versus than the pursuit of external goods

[iii] See https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/oikeiosis for a fuller explanation

[iv] See https://modernstoicism.com/how-to-develop-virtue-in-a-stoic-way-by-chris-gill-and-tim-lebon/ for ideas about how to develop the virtues

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and  Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

The Stoic – February Issue

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see some overlap in membership).

The theme of this issue is “STOIC REFECTIONS”. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Sharon Lebell, Jonas Salzgeber, Flora Bernard, Piotr Stankiewicz, Kai Whiting and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • Theme: LOOKING WITHIN
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. There, but for the grace of God, …
  • SHARON LEBELL. Faith, belief, and truth
  • JONAS SALZGEBER.  Count your blessings
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Freedom in a world of fortune’s arrows
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. Dichotomy of control and the eternal now
  • FLORA BERNARD. Taking responsibility
  • KAI WHITING. Stoicism and Veganuary (1)

PLUS 

  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.
  • STOIC QUOTES for everyday of the month
  • STOIC BOOKS

And much more!