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

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

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

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

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

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

The Study

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

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

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

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

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

Results and Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems and Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Historical Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Duties

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

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

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

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

Book One What is Honorable (Virtuous)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Two: What is Advantageous (Expedient)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Three: Conflicts Between The Honorable And The Advantageous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plutarch, a first century Roman historian recalls an event,

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

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

Stoicism and Desire Regulation by Ryan Bush

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

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 2

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

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

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

Desire Regulation

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

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

Wilhelm Hofmann et al., The Psychology of Desire

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

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

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

Epictetus, Discourses, book 2, chapter 18

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

Marcus Aurelius offers some specific examples of down-regulation: 

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6

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

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

Gratitude

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7

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

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

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

Negative Visualization

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

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

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

Expanded Self

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11

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

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

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

View from Above

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9

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

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

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

Embrace

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3

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

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

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

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

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

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 8

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

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

The Stoic – January 2021 Issue

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

The theme of this issue is ‘STOIC REFECTIONS. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Chris Gill, John Sellars, Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Sharon Lebell, Antonia Macaro, Jonas Salzgeber, Flora Bernard, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

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

And much more!

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

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

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

Consider these facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Chuck Chakrapani, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

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

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

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

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

Seneca, On the Happy Life 3.4

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.1

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

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

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

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

The First Burden: Foolishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epictetus, Enchiridion 1

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

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

The Second Burden: Excess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 16

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

Seneca, Consolation to Helvia

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

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

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

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

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

The third burden: Fearfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epictetus, Discourses 2.16

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

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

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

Seneca, Moral Letters 26

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

The Fourth Burden: Injustice

What is Injustice?

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

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

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

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

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 31-35 (Paraphrased)

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we lay down the final burden of Injustice.

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

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

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

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

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

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Massimo Pigliucci, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter XXXIII.11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Finibus III.22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism in Action After Lockdown by Christopher Gill

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Christopher Gill, one of the founders of Modern Stoicism, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epictetus, Handbook 1

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

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

Meditations 4.49

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Exercise: Contracting the Circles of Relationship.

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

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

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

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

Third Topic: Promoting Environmental Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this post, we continue our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Sharon Lebell, who spoke at the main 2020 Stoicon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My own Stoic Journey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stoic – December Issue

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

The theme of this issue is ‘STOIC REFECTIONS. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: John Sellars, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Jonas Salzgeber, Elizabeth Azide, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

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