Stoicism and Surgery by Robert S. Colter

As a professor of philosophy, and of ancient philosophy in particular, I have been studying Stoicism at some level for over 20 years. It is one thing to study it as a dry academic subject, and an entirely different thing to apply it to one’s own life, especially in the systematic way that Stoicism invites us to. I want to share a recent experience that, for me at least, was an example of how Stoicism can fit into one’s life, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I began writing this reflection from a hospital bed in Hamilton NZ. I just had my catheter removed (oh what freedom!), and was still awaiting the passing of wind (the lovely New Zealand euphemism for farting), the next great milestone to be achieved! What better time to reflect on Stoicism and its role in my week?

My week began with great excitement as I embarked upon a long-planned journey from my home in the US to NZ in order to, among other things, deliver a talk on Stoicism to a number of philosophers at a conference, as well as to do some sightseeing and other tourist activities. The journey is of course a long one, and I was a bit anxious about it, primarily about whether I would be able to sleep on the long flight over the Pacific. I did sleep a bit, although not as much as I hoped, and arrived in NZ in good spirits, looking forward to delivering my talk.

I was staying with a friend and colleague of long standing, and arriving at his home proceeded with my unpacking. We then had a nice lunch, went to the local campus where we worked on some projects for a few hours. Next we took a walk along the local river and park, enjoying the sights, and talking about the different varieties of flora and fauna to be found in NZ vs the US. All very pleasant (at least in a way appropriate for preferred indifferents) and exactly what I had been hoping for as the beginning of my visit. But there was a storm on the horizon that I could not yet see. I would soon have the opportunity to reflect on Zeno’s quip, after learning that he had lost everything in a shipwreck, “Fortune bids me to become a less encumbered philosopher.”

I had started to feel some discomfort in my abdomen sometime during our walk, and it was slowly increasing. I mentioned it to my companion, and we decided it must be the after effects of the long trip, and would soon pass, at least after a trip or two to the toilet. Seemed quite reasonable. So I proceeded to the event I had planned for the evening, but before the event was over, I found myself being attended to as I lay on the cold concrete, sweating and in pain. The fine people at that event delivered me to my friend’s home, where I made a number of futile attempts to use the toilet.

Soon the pain increased many fold, and I began vomiting, and the ambulance was called, and the Emergency Department, and pain, and … Those who may be medically inclined might recognize a likely culprit – an obstructed bowel (and please no witty comments about philosophy professors being full of shit).

I don’t remember too many details of those hours, but the ones I do recall are vivid. I recall, being bent over double by pain, saying to myself “you are but an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be” and “you are nothing to me.” Shockingly, I felt a shift in both my attitude and perception of the pain, albeit minor (it still hurt pretty severely!) and temporary (lasted for a few seconds). Later, with a bit more clarity, I was able to recall Epictetus words more fully, from the Enchiridion:

From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.” Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”

It took a while, but I was finally seen by the doctor, who proceeded to send me upstairs to the ward I still occupied several days later. There were a couple of days of attempts at non-surgical intervention, but in the end surgery was required. I was still hooked up to machines and my guts hurt. My family remained in the US, and I missed them (less stoically that I ought to have). I am all the way across the world from my home, and while perhaps no longer in deadly medical peril, still there is much discomfort, and many plans, including my return, remain up in the air.

Once again, I find some comfort in a number of stoic reflections: Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus keeps popping up:

Lead me, Zeus, and you too, Destiny,
Wherever I am assigned by you;
I’ll follow and not hesitate,
But even if I do not wish to,
Because I’m bad, I’ll follow anyway.

It is clear that I did not want to go through this medical emergency. My plans were wiped out. I did not give my talk, and I was unable to see all the sights I had anticipated. But none of that was up to me. The universe was in charge, and I am just a part of nature, and if this is what nature wills, the so be it. I can either choose to go along, or be dragged kicking and screaming.

Many times I faced more pain, even after surgery. And there was the loneliness, although I had daily visits from my friend and the nursing staff was wonderful. I found the following from Marcus helpful:

Everything that happens either happens in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it or in such a way that you are not. If, then, it comes about in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it, make no complaint, but bear it as your nature enables you to do; but if it comes about in such a way that you are not fitted by nature to bear it, again you should make no complaint, for it will soon be the end of you. Remember, however, that you are fitted by nature to bear everything that you can render bearable and endurable through the exercise of your judgement, by suggesting the idea to yourself that your interest or your duty demands it.

I will find the means to endure, or not. Many before me, and many still to come, have faced and will face trials such as mine, and even more severe. Thinking of these passage certainly decreased my anxieties and loneliness. I am no stoic sage, but these reflections give me at times some small comfort against the vicissitudes of life. But it is comfort that was not available to me before, and I am grateful for that.

I had found that I could endure. But then something even more unexpected occurred. A couple of days after surgery, I was conversing with my wife via Skype, and she noted, “You seem happy!” I was struck by this, since I hadn’t noticed it, and besides, what did I really have to be happy about, even if I had come to a point where I was no longer miserable?

I took a look around me. Perhaps like most of us, I often operate under the illusion that I have control of a great number of things in my life. I was raised in the mythology of the “self-made man” and the notion of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” My situation here, however, was different. I had been forcibly stripped of the idea that my zone of control extended much beyond my hospital bed. As Epictetus points out, not even my body is truly under my control, and that was certainly true in my case. I was attached to a number of tubes and hoses, so that I couldn’t even get out of bed without assistance. Even when I could get out to bed, I could barely manage to walk the 100 feet of hallway outside my room. And, of course, I was unable to even fart, despite my best efforts.

So, I was reduced to doing my best to make choices a virtuously as possible, even if I didn’t think of it that way. I decided to treat everyone on the hospital staff with kindness and respect. When I attempted to move around the ward, I tried to do so with courage, knowing that it would be painful and difficult. I decided to wean myself from the pain medications as soon as I could, so that my cognitive faculties might not be so muddled. But, I did not totally forswear the medications, since being in too much pain might also make it more difficult for me to make virtuous choices. My zone of control had been reduced to such choices, or at least I had been compelled to recognize that those were its limits all along! The following passage from Epictetus seemed to capture my situation rather well:

Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be; short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skillfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.

So, I could focus on what was mine, to play the part of the convalescent well. It was not my choice, but it was not mine to choose in the first place. And the result seemed to be that I was happy, as my wife seemed to note, or at least I was undisturbed and content with my lot, which may not be so far from happy.

As I finish writing this, some weeks after the incident, I can report that surgery was successful, and I am recovering nicely. I am thankful for the ways in which Stoicism, and especially these passages, have helped me through a difficult trial. I am now a bit more confident of my ability to remain in agreement with nature the next time something difficult occurs. And, perhaps I can even be content!

Robert Colter is Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. His research is in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of education. He is also the founder and director of the Wyoming Stoic Camp.

Event Announcement – Summer Stoic School / Scuola Estiva di Stoicismo

Spend three days in Rome (July 13-15) studying ancient and modern Stoicism! Join Massimo and a small group of prokoptontes (students of Stoicism) to dig into Epictetus’ Manual, learn about practical Stoicism and how to apply it to your life. While there, walk through the Roman Fori or visit the National Roman Museum, and of course enjoy traditional Roman cuisine and local wines (don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of being a Epicurean…)! Il corso sarà offerto sia in italiano che in inglese.

Vieni per tre giorni a Roma (luglio 13-15) a studiare lo Stoicismo antico e moderno! Unisciti a Massimo e ad un gruppetto di prokoptontes (studenti di Stoicismo) per imparare il Manuale di Epitteto e applicare lo Stoicismo alla tua vita personale. Mentre sei con noi, fai una camminata tra i Fori Romani, o visita il Museo Nazionale Romano, e ovviamente goditi la cucina tradizionale romana e i vini locali (non preoccuparti, non ti accuseremo di essere un Epicureo…)! The course will be offered both in English and in Italian.

For more information (books, activities, logistics, etc.) see the Meetup page for the school and feel free to email Massimo Pigliucci

Per maggiori informazioni contatta Massimo Pigluicci via email 

On Outrage: Trump is the Obstacle and the Way by Marco Bronx

Serious question: when is outrage appropriate? Because I’m a progressive democrat and Donald Trump is now president of the United States. As I write this, my Facebook feed is falling apart. I’ve seen videos of riots in the streets, people punching each other in the face, friend unfriending friend, and many deleting their accounts from pure overwhelm.

Facebook and Twitter has fallen into a never-ending cycle of clickbait headlines, arguments, and my friends, both republican and democrat, trading barbs via links from their favorite news of the day.

But I’ve yet to flip out, take a dump on a Trump sign in public or try to eat someone’s face off who smugly laughed at the stunning loss of Hillary Clinton. In fact, I’ve been pretty calm… I actually went to sleep around midnight on November 8, before it was clear to me that Trump would win.

Impossible you say?

Maybe you think I’m an older white man who needs to check his privilege, or I just don’t get the importance of what we just voted into office. Because if I did understand, I should be freaking furious, I should feel devastated and already planning my move to Canada.

On November 9th, my wife woke up in tears and asked me why I seemed so positive. Then she then threw me out of the room when I tried to tell her.   But if she weren’t so upset, I’d tell her the answer to that question is Stoicism.

Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to thy mind in the case of the knave, and the faithless man, and of every man who does wrong in any way. – Marcus Aurelius

Isn’t it immoral to stand by calmly amidst such unrest? Isn’t this the time we take to the streets and shout at the top of our lungs that this is unacceptable? Where should the line of acceptance fall? While I’m disappointed by Trump’s divisive win and concerned for our future, the more important question for me is how should we respond?

I think this post-election period presents us with a unique opportunity to ask ourselves what is the wisest, most ethical way to handle a now wide-spread, increasing rivalry in our country. Because as Marcus Aurelius points out, there will always be shameless men and women in our world, so let’s not wish for the impossible now… it won’t help.

Why Be Against Outrage?

As a type-A, I used to think there are times when action powered by anger would help me obliterate any obstacles in my path and that it made me more resourceful. But 10 years ago, I permanently crippled my health and I suspect it’s because I lived with so much stress and anger.

Today I believe that anger – while useful at times – should never be indulged in, even in the slightest degree, if at all possible.  So if not now… then when? What if someone insults you, you might ask?

Seneca would respond, “Thanks my good kinsmen! For giving me so generous a part that I can love, though not beloved.”

Well isn’t that nice Mr. Holier-than-thou… ok, you say, so what if you’re having a heated argument and then she spits on you??

Seneca might calmly whisper to himself, “well… that’s how it seemed to her.”

Haaa, yeah right! Ok fine, you self-righteous sally… then, what if someone kills your wife??? What are you gonna do then?!

To feel anger on behalf of one’s friends does not show a loving, but a weak mind: it is admirable and worthy conduct to stand forth as the defender of one’s parents, children, friends, and countrymen, at the call of duty itself, acting of one’s own free will, forming a deliberate judgment… not in an impulsive, frenzied fashion. (But) no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason it is unsuited to obtain it: being overly hasty and frantic, like almost all desires, it hinders itself in the attainment of its own object, and therefore has never been useful either in peace or war: for it makes peace like war, and when in arms forgets that (the god of War) Mars belongs to neither side, and falls into the power of the enemy, because it is not in its own power. -Seneca

…And to those of you who say at very least, the act of punishment for the murder of your wife is justified by anger:

Do you think that the law is angry with men whom it does not know, whom it has never seen…? We ought, therefore, to adopt the law’s frame of mind, which does not become angry, but merely defines offenses… as Plato says, ‘no wise man punishes any one because he’s sinned, but that he may sin no more: for what is past can’t be recalled, but what is to come may be checked.’-Seneca

Almost makes you angry reading that, doesn’t it? Look, I’m not saying you won’t feel any anger from such a horrific loss. Of course you would.

How could we all not be overcome by despair, anger and the passionate desire for revenge? I suspect even the best of us would fall into our darkest thoughts. Because we’re not robots. We’re human, highly fallible, subject to our passions at any given time and Seneca understood that, too.

The Stoics realized the cold reality that we often can’t control our initial reactions, it’s beyond our reason…but we can control our response to those initial reactions. And that, Epictetus adamantly affirms, is in our control.

This is why Seneca fills an entire book called On Anger, in order to lay out his case against anger, using pure reasoning and explains why – in any situation – there is never a good enough reason to justify it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I can’t recommend it enough.

Not Your Typical Stoic

Like most people, I used to think a Stoic person was just a cold, emotionless person who couldn’t care less about other people…yes, I know lots of British people could fall into this category, too.  But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that contrary to the stereotype, Stoics were all about action and compassion. Because the Stoics also reasoned that it’s in our nature to be social, just and compassionate.

Does the wise man just calmly sit back and do nothing? Of course not. Like the serenity prayer, they exercise the courage to change the things they can change, accept the things they can’t, and develop wisdom to know the difference.

As a progressive Democrat, action and compassion are very important to me because I can’t just sit back calmly and watch Rome burn.  And if we want to pursue justice, then shouldn’t reason prevail above all? Shouldn’t our moral values be born out of a compassionate motivation but also be tempered with wisdom and rational thinking?

If we act out of outrage, then we’re clearly not coming from a place of reason – literally or figuratively. And that’s a dangerous choice we’re making, even if we’re not aware of it – or especially because of it. So as counterintuitive as it may sound, I don’t want to focus as much on what actions we can take in pursuit of justice.

Instead, I want to share some key coping strategies I’ve learned from Stoicism to help keep your sanity and be more effective (and trust me, this list is as much for me as it is anyone else).

Stoic Coping Strategies To Keep You From Going Crazy:

Meditate on the Good

As soon as I open my Facebook, Twitter or turn on the news, the worst, most clickbait-y headlines await me….lots of posts about racism, voter fraud, gun shootings, terrorism videos, illegal immigration, the middle east – and of course, Adolf Hitler is always a must-have crowd favorite.

At the same time, I’m also aware of the amazing and positive changes happening right now as I write this. Incredible breakthroughs in biotech and technology that may cure common cancers and diseases, the coming revolution in transportation which brings with it the inevitable switch to alternative energy, regardless of who’s President (…no more wars?), and the fact that diverse philanthropic donations has never enjoyed such meteoric heights in our nation’s history.

Not enough? How much would you miss your iPhone or Android if you couldn’t do remote deposits, email on the couch or candy crush during awkward social engagements? Or if you lost your left hand, how would you cook, use the bathroom, drive?

What about basic civil engineering like running water (hot AND cold), flushing toilets and the working electricity throughout our world that we use many times per day without a single thought? And finally, you live and breathe every day, despite having done nothing at all to deserve it.

There’s much to be thankful for at any given time – if you want. So if you’re feeling pessimistic, that’s a choice you’re making.  This is not about seeing the good and ignoring the bad. This is about opening up and expanding your world view to see and accept both truths.

Buddhist monks who practice meditation are taught to use negative and positive visualization to stimulate compassion.

An example of negative visualization would be imagining that someone close to you was just in a car accident and she’s lying in your arms, suffering from terrible pain. By empathizing with the suffering of those we care about, our altruistic desire is awakened and exercised.

However, if they begin to feel overwhelmed by the idea their loved ones are suffering terribly, the counter technique is to visualize all the joy and happiness of others. To meditate on the many great people in the world who are helping a great number of people, in order to be filled with hope and optimism. But should that joy overflow to the point of distraction, the monks will then bring their attention back to the suffering of others again.

In this way, they exercise and build their compassion without being overly attached to either suffering or joy. The ultimate goal for these monks is to build their compassion and use that to act accordingly in the service of others… without losing their sense of equanimity.

And just like the Buddhist monks, we’re also responsible for maintaining our equanimity by managing our focus. Because without that equanimity, we’re living in reaction to our environment and the goal of our action is lost.

Is the world full of terrifying pain and injustice? Of course. Is the world full of genuine grace, unconditional love, boundless joy and hallelujah? Yes. As Tony Robbins says, “what’s wrong is always available, but so is what’s right.” It’s up to us to take the blinders off.

Not In My Control

To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race. -Seneca

Did you ever get angry because you haven’t figured out how to control the weather yet? Maybe it rained on your graduation day and after a few moments of huffing and puffing, you laughed at yourself.

Have you thought about how unfair it is that you’re getting older and you still can’t stop time? And regardless of whether you get angry at the sun or not, it will continue to rise and set every day.

Zeno, one of the original founders of Stoicism (think of him like the Justin Timberlake of his boy band), once compared humanity to a dog tied to a moving cart. The cart is like the wheels of fate moving onward. And the dog must run along with the cart or be dragged by it. Yet the choice remains his.

So is it wise to be outraged by every murder and every murderer around the world? Should I be outraged that Genghis KHAAAAAAN! raped thousands of women and murdered 40 million people a thousand years ago?

Regardless if I get angry or not, shameless people will exist in the world, tyrants will be in power at times, bad policy will be enacted and the powerful will oppress the powerless. History will repeat itself in many ways and I can choose to accept this truth or be dragged by it.

A comedian I saw at Comedy Cellar once joked that it’s almost impossible to be a racist if you live in New York City because you’d be exhausted by the end of the day. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.  Because if you think the right answer to every injustice is more outrage, then prepare to be outraged all day, every day.

There are lots of things I don’t have control over. The movement of the planets, the passage of time, life and death, people’s behaviors and feelings. In fact, my sphere of influence is very small and while that may sound defeatist, it’s not only rational, it’s very freeing.

Because there’s no point worrying about what I can’t control or getting angry about it.  And that brings us to one of my favorite coping strategies…

It’s like having two separate folders in your mind. What you can control and what you can’t. Under the folder of “in my control” is your thoughts, your reactions, and your behaviors. Under the folder of what’s “not in my control” is everything else… and it’s the list of things you need to let go of.

Sometimes when I forget this lesson, I play a mental exercise: I meditate on trying to catch the wind. How would I make the wind blow south even while the breeze drifts north? Can I push it with my hands? Can I pull it somehow? What tools could I use to influence it? How much progress could I make if I worked on it tirelessly for the next 3 months? 6 months?

After a few moments of trying to solve this impossible problem my mind clears up a bit and I remind myself that “this too, is like trying to catch the wind.”

The Trichotomy of Control

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his very soul? – Mark 8:36

I should mention here that modern stoicism recognizes the gray area between what’s in our control and what isn’t. Or rather, it underscores it more because it’s still discussed in the original stoicism.  This third folder is called “some control”.

An example from Epictetus is how we go about an ocean voyage. We can choose the captain, the cruise line, the date, the season and look at the forecasts. But if a storm strikes the boat on your way, then that’s “no longer my business” as he says. Because you’ve done your best to have a good voyage beforehand and now it’s up to the captain.

But what if the boat sinks? Then “I do the only thing I’m in position to do,” says Epictetus. To “drown – but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.”

Sounds like a lot of fun at parties, right?  As depressing as that sounds, the wisdom of it shines forth: that even when fate and fortune turn against us, it’s still our responsibility to do the best we can. And if we fail, we’re still expected to be in control of how we react.

The key is that it’s an internal compass, not external.

If your goal is to be a better athlete, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It matters that you tried to improve your skill. If you want to conquer the fear of public speaking, it doesn’t matter that the audience hates you, it matters that you got up to speak and that you faced your fear with courage and inner calm.

And if your goal is to protest Trump policy… dare I say it?  It doesn’t matter whether the policy you were protesting changed or not, it matters that you tried, that you did it with thoughtfulness, courage and you maintained your inner peace.

Because if the goal is never outside your control, then you’re never derailed from your goal. You never stop. You don’t lose hope. You’re not discouraged.

You will have setbacks. But when fortune turns against us – as it sometimes does – it just becomes more grist for sculpting our character. We become stronger because of it, not in spite of it… “what stands in the way, becomes the way”, as Marcus Aurelius said.

Because for him, the challenge isn’t what ultimately matters. It’s who we become in the process that matters. This is the meaning behind his famous quote.

Whether you hate Trump or Clinton or anyone else in power, rather than wishing our society didn’t have leaders like them, shouldn’t we rather wish that we were strong enough to withstand leaders like them? And even be better for it?

It’s certainly noble to want to make the world a better place for our neighbor and our children, to want to ease the suffering of others. But in the end, we can only be certain of making ourselves better for the world.

So go ahead and protest, in whatever form you see best. There’s nothing more stoic than standing up for what’s right, even when reasonable people won’t support you. But do it without anger. Either way, the choice is yours.

Take the Long View – Let Time Tell Its Story

We need a long-breathed struggle against permanent and prolific evils; not, indeed, to quell them, but merely to prevent their overpowering us. – Seneca

I have a quirky, and maybe not so politically correct, theory about people. It’s that the more similar we are, the more we look for differences in each other.

Have you noticed how South Koreans hate North Koreans? Northern Chinese hate southern Chinese. Puerto Ricans hate Dominicans. Italians from the north hate Italians from the south and vice versa. Ok, maybe hate is a strong word, but they do have a strong rivalry.

As an outsider, the differences between Haitians and Dominicans might seem trivial to me. But as a native New Yorker, the hatred for New Jersey is an immutable law of nature. Just… no.

As an American, I find the Australian rivalry funny between New South Wales and Victoria. I mean, come on! They’re from the same place for god’s sake! They speak with the same quirky accents, don’t they? They have to have more in common with each other than not!

Yet, as a New Yorker, I can get along easily with the Brits, Australians, South Americans, and Canadians. After all, we’re not that different, are we?  But if you asked me to visit rural Arkansas, Oklahoma City or Alabama…I’d probably hesitate more than a little bit. Because yanks like me blend in with those good ole’ boys about as well as oil and water.

Yes, we’re all Americans, we all speak English and the fact that we live on the same continent seems significant…certainly, we’re much closer to each other than those in London, Sydney, Buenos Aires or Nova Scotia.

So why do we often get along better with strangers than our neighbors?

It’s like the closer we are, the more distance we seek. And the more distance we have, the more we want to travel to farther exotic nations and seek common ground.

So in my theory, the key motif to all these contradictions is the word distance. It’s funny to me as long as I’m the outsider. But when it lands too close to home, it starts to feel more threatening.

In the same way, I see all humanity. When our identity is threatened, we want to emphasize our differences in order to reinforce our identities or re-establish our alpha nature by comparison. But when we have enough space, our self-importance fades.

But what if instead of expanding our space, we expanded our identity? Do we need physical distance in order to feel safe, to rise above our differences?

I don’t know if those Blues Travelers were Stoics but their song “100 Years” sounds suspiciously like it. Because it won’t mean a thing in a 100 years – none of it. In 100 years, all these silly rivalries mean nothing when you see the rise and fall of entire civilizations, of empires, business empires, the generations of people being born, having kids, growing old and dying.

Do the people from 1,000 years ago affect your daily life? Like us, they lived, they ate, they loved, they fought, they had hopes, disappointments, and dreams…but as Marcus Aurelius says, “of all that life, not a trace survives today”.

In the same way, our actions, our hopes, and worries today will mean nothing to the people 10,000 years from now – assuming humans exist. In the grand scheme, we will all be forgotten – and those who remember us will be forgotten as well.

For Stoics, this is taking the long view. It goes beyond just meditating on the good. It’s a way of creating cognitive distance. Of expanding our identity to a cosmic scale. Until – like a magnifying glass that’s suddenly removed – our field of view opens wide.

Marcus Aurelius (and yes, I get the irony he lived 2,000 years ago so shut up about it already) liked to meditate on the impermanence of nature. He’d reflect not only on the eons of time passing by, but space. By doing this the importance of the things he believed was important would lose their significance.

If we were to rise mentally above the earth high enough, it becomes a perfect sphere and the people smaller than ants. If we keep rising, we can begin to see the neighboring planets, the solar system, the galaxy, the neighboring galaxies and a swath of the expansive universe.

We can mentally see the existence of life rise and fall across the eons of time, from the single cell to the almost innumerable complex mammals, including humans… and in the future, the life forms yet to come. And yet, on a cosmic scale, we all share the same home and the same birth.

We can see the massive wheels of time turning, in synchronized motion with the clockwork of the cosmos and massive heavenly bodies. We become the ultimate outsider looking down on the smallest of things…our flash of existence in the thinnest measure of infinite time.

Are democrats to blame for the rise of Trump or are the republicans? Who cares? Let time tell its story. Is the stock market poised for a crash soon? Who knows? Let time tell its story. Is my friend a bigot because he voted for President Trump…what were his true motives after all?

Let time tell its story. In the final balance, the truth always becomes clearer. And just like at the end of our short lives, when we’re on our death beds, our priorities change. Few things seem significant.  So too, should we live our lives.

Just as gaining cognitive distance from our problems gives us a better perspective, taking the long view cultivates our wisdom, patience, and equanimity.

Do I feel the need to read every explosive expose, or march in every protest or donate to all the causes my friends are promoting? No. While I believe it’s important for me to be a voice for good in the world, it also helps if I stay away from the conversation at times.

So when all else fails, this is one of my last lines of defense: I take the long view. I reserve my judgment and let time tell its story.

The headlines from both my friends and media alike are filled with fear and anger triggers. The question is always, “where’s the outrage?!” on X, Y or Z.

There are many reasons people want you to get triggered and feel outraged… outrage drives traffic, outrage generates clicks, likes, comments, search rankings, mountains of ad revenue and allows them to exploit political opportunities endlessly.

But it’s said that the most dangerous person in the world is the one who’s happy. Because she can’t be manipulated into buying anything – she doesn’t need anyone’s approval. And she has no reason to hate her neighbor. She’s dangerous because she can’t be controlled. She’s dangerous because she’s mentally free.

That’s why I believe no other issue confronting us today is more important than our anger, collectively and individually. In a time when outrage is so widespread and a rapidly growing trillion dollar currency, to be untroubled is a revolutionary act.

To be master of oneself is the greatest rebellion.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Marco Bronx Writes.

Marco Bronx grew up in the Bronx and has been an entrepreneur since he was seventeen. is a place where he writes what seems “worthy”. He sometimes writes personal development advice, meditations or thought experiments just to play Satan’s advocate and challenge your beliefs. What’s the truth? You decide. 

Event Announcement – Stoicism In The Rockies

The Wyoming Stoic Camp will take place again from May 15 to 19 at the Table in the Wilderness Camp in Centennial, WY.  It is hosted by the University of Wyoming Department of Philosophy, and has the goals of experimenting with living in a thoroughly philosophical way, using the Stoics as a model, and exploring what it means to live intentionally.

Registration, lodging, and meals for the camp is $300.  Participants will engage in study of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, through small groups and large discussions.  Outdoor activities such as hiking, bonfires, and waking up to watch the sunrise on the final morning are also part of the camp.

To learn more about the Wyoming Stoic Camp, you can visit their site, or Stoic Camp 2017_Flyer.

Stoic Perspectives and Practices For Addressing Anger by Gregory Sadler

Over the last several months here at Stoicism Today, we have been publishing a number of pieces originating in the presentations and workshops provided at Stoicon 2016.  Among those that have appeared at this point are some great pieces by Julia AnnasWilliam IrvineChristopher Gill, and Cinzia Arruzza – and we also published the excellent presentation John Sellars would have given, but was unable to. We still have a number of other posts by Stoicon presenters in the works, and they will appear in the coming months.  The idea behind this series – something that we will hopefully repeat for future Stoicon conferences – is to allow the readership of Stoicism Today opportunities to learn, share, reflect upon, and discuss the topics examined during the conference.

Instead of giving a talk during the plenary sessions, I opted to provide a longer workshop during the break-out sessions, and since a significant portion of the work I do centers on understanding, managing, and working through anger – quite a timely topic at present (though really, a perennial one!) – I decided to focus on Stoic resources for dealing with that often difficult emotion.  Since it was a roughly 90-minute fairly interactive workshop, that format doesn’t lend itself quite as easily as a 20-minute talk to generating a blog post, but it also doesn’t present any insurmountable obstacles to setting something down that readers might find informative and useful, and that more or less adequately conveys some of the information we covered in the workshop.

In the case of this workshop in particular, if you could not attend Stoicon, you are still in some degree of luck – as a practice I videorecord most of my talks and workshops.  So, if you would like to watch or listen to the session, you can easily do so – here’s the video – and you can also download the materials I provided the participants – here’s the session overview, a set of quotes on anger, a worksheet for tracking anger, a handout on Epictetus on anger, and a handout on Seneca on anger.  In my view, these just scratch the surface of this complicated topic about which the Stoics have so much to teach us – but hopefully they provide a useful start for thinking about the subject.

Since the video and handouts of the workshop are available, instead of merely providing an overview of what I presented (and the discussions we engaged in) during the session, I decided a better use of this blog post about the workshop would be for me to follow up more selectively on a few of the workshop’s topics.

A Starting Point for Changing Perspective

To start off the workshop, I read a passage from Epictetus’ Discourses:

Well, what then? Am I not to injure the man who has injured me?—First consider what injury is, and call to mind what you have heard the philosophers say. For if the good lies in moral purpose, and the evil likewise in moral purpose, see if what you are saying does not come to something like this:”Well, what then? Since so-and-so has injured himself by doing me some wrong, shall I not injure myself by doing him some wrong?” Why, then, do we not represent the case to ourselves in some such light as that? (2.10)

I selected that passage for a particular reason.  As I remarked, a good bit of what the workshop would set out really amounts to an extended commentary on that passage, whose context is actually an extended discussion about how we can determine what our duties are by looking at the “names” or “designations” we bear.  That is, what our roles, relationships, and responsibilities are.

For many of us it is easy to get angry with those with whom we do have ongoing relationships, for instance those of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, or other similar roles that involve ongoing interaction.  It is a common experience to perceive ourselves being wronged, to take offense, and to get angry, when others don’t measure up to expectations – whether entirely legitimate, wholly off-base, or anywhere in between.

When we do get angry at someone else (or even sometimes with inanimate objects), it is because we judge that person as having injured or harmed us in some way to have imposed upon us something we are averse to, or to have interfered with our desires.  This perception of harm by itself is not enough to provoke or constitute the emotion of anger, though. It also requires that we view what was done to us (or to others we care about or identify with) – or perhaps left undone – to be wrong, undeserved, unwarranted.  There is a third essential aspect to anger as well, namely that at the heart of it is a desire to retaliate against the other person, that is to impose some harm or humiliation upon them in return for what one thinks that they did to oneself.

From the Stoic perspective, anger is always something bad.  They are uncompromising on that point, so much that other philosophical traditions placed them at one end of a spectrum (the Epicurean Philodemus’ On Anger, and the Christian Lactantius’ On The Anger of God would be prime examples of this), with the Aristotelians at the opposite end (perhaps a bit unfairly). There is what might appear to be an exception in one passage of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (2.10), where he agrees with the Aristotelian philosopher Theophrastus in viewing actions committed out of anger as less bad than actions motivated by desire for sensual pleasures, but even then, anger is still bad, just not as bad as something else.

Why is anger especially bad? And “bad” in what senses or ways?  In his treatise On Anger, Seneca will point out how anger distorts the appearance of a person, particularly the face, rendering it ugly and frightening.  But that change in appearance – which can be harnessed as a means for managing one’s anger, in the technique of “bringing before the eyes” – is really least among the bad things anger introduces.  One might say that in the angry person, the distorted, even inhuman exterior, signified by face, posture, and voice, reflects and reveals the more important and damaging distortions within the person.

Immediately following the very passage cited above, Epictetus points out  and then asks:

Instead of that, where there is some loss affecting our body or our property, there we count it injury; but is there no injury where the loss affects our moral purpose?

The prohairesis – the “moral purpose” or “faculty of choice” at the core of our persons and characters – that is what inside of us gets damaged by the anger we feel and act upon.

To be sure, when we act upon anger, following out its essential desire, we do attempt to cause some sort of injury in return, to impose some kind of retaliation – even if merely imagined on our part (e.g. muttering insults under our breath, as if that somehow did something to the other person!)  In many cases, we may indeed harm that person, and that is another badness resulting from our anger.  Even though, from a Stoic perspective, whether that person is indeed harmed does depend upon whether they judge or think themselves to be harmed, most of the people that we interact with are not Stoics (or are only imperfectly so – myself included!), and will not only regard themselves as being harmed, but will thus be harmed, by our angry attitudes, put-downs, silent treatments, or other ways of expressing anger.

We injure and damage ourselves through anger – and that is something particularly bad.  This is precisely why Epictetus points out the irrational line of reasoning in the passage above.  If a person does something wrong to me – for example, if a longtime friend keeps failing to keep appointments to do something with me, promised over and over again, because he clearly prefers to spend his time with other people (say, posting pictures of how much fun he is having on social media) – it is understandable that, if I don’t make an effort to remind myself that this is really something up to him, and that I don’t have to interpret it as some kind of injury to me, that I will feel hurt by his inattention and broken promises, and that I will also likely feel anger arising from those hurt feelings.

Imagine that, motivated by this anger, I determine that it makes sense for me – it is something reasonable and good for me – to retaliate, to seek out some vindication of my feelings. Perhaps I’m a real hot-head and call up my friend, leaving some sort of message intended to accuse, to hurt or humiliate, to express my outrage, on his voicemail.  Alternately, I talk badly of that person to others behind his back.  Or – and here we’re getting into particularly dangerous territory – I go to where he is enjoying himself, make a scene, get in a physical fight, or something along similar lines.

Now, all of this might accomplish what the emotion of anger is driving towards, that is, causing the other person some emotional pain in return.  In fact, there might be a good deal of “collateral damage” as well – pain, or even fear, disgust, or anger (or for those who like those sorts of spectacles, perhaps enjoyment), caused on the part of yet other people involved in the situation.  But what does this do to me, the person who is feeling the emotion, and then acting on that emotion, of anger?

Both in the immediate situation, and in the longer term, anger damages me.  It leads me to abandon what bit of good I have developed within myself.  There are various ways to think of this, and the Stoics employ different – and in my view, entirely complementary – ways of naming and thinking about what is lost in the process.  Virtue is one of them.  Living – or maintaining one’s prohairesis – in accordance with nature is another. The person of a certain sort (e.g. the person of fidelity) within oneself is another.  However we conceive it, there is some real injury I do to myself in indulging in – and not at least opposing or calming – my anger.

And so, there is a paradoxical and counter-productive line of reasoning that, if not going explicitly through my head, is certainly what I am following when I am angry.  And this line of practical reasoning, when left to itself, seems so understandable, so needed, so natural that unless its absurdity is pointed out to us – by someone like Epictetus – and perhaps also explained and driven home to us (if we’re particularly stubborn or already have built up vicious habits in this respect), we don’t realize just how irrational anger can be, or how injurious indulgence in it turns out to be for us.

Another Way We Can Shift Our Perspective

The Stoics are not the only philosophical school to engage in analyses of anger that prove helpful not only in understanding what anger is and how it works, but also how we can change our own particular (and often habitual) perspectives in ways that gradually help us to become less angry, more in control of our emotional states, more fully rational, better integrated both in ourselves and with the world we inhabit.  Their favorite sparring partners on this topic – the Aristotelians – and perhaps their most popular rivals – the Epicureans – also make interesting contributions.

But the Stoics – going from the ancient texts that we do still possess – do provide us with some of the most fully developed strategies for altering our ways of looking at matters and responding emotionally – that is, changing our basic perspectives – when it comes to anger.  Many of these are of wider application and significance.  They aren’t just about anger specifically, but instead have to do with our reasoning, our beliefs or judgements, our emotions, our desires and aversions, and our choices more generally.

One of these strategies for changing perspective stems from a distinction that, once formulated explicitly by Epictetus, assumes an absolutely central role in Stoic thought – that between those things that are in our control and those that are not in our control, made in Enchiridion, chapter 1.  His discussions and explanations in the Discourses give much fuller picture of how this important distinction is supposed to work (if you’d like to read more about that in particular, you can go here), but there are two really key points to make here.

The first is that most people – ourselves included – and indeed our cultures and societies in general are mixed up about this distinction. Getting to a point of not being mixed up about it more often than not is not as simple as reading and understanding, or even committing to memory and reminding ourselves of, this distinction.  For many of us, it requires a considerable amount of continual practice – of “discipline” or ascesis – in actual situations, and along with this some review and reflection of what we did well or rightly, and where we failed ourselves, in order to start changing how we typically think about what is and what is not in our control.

The second is that the distinction between what is and what is not in our control intersects with another distinction equally important to Stoic moral theory, that between what is genuinely good or bad in itself – possessing intrinsic moral value or disvalue – and what is indifferent – perhaps a “preferred” or “rejected” indifferent, but nevertheless something that does not have intrinsic moral value or disvalue.  When we allow ourselves to become preoccupied with matters that are outside of our control, to ascribe them fuller importance than they do possess, it is quite often – from the Stoic perspective – because we have confused things that are indifferents with what is genuinely and intrinsically good or bad for us.

What do these general considerations have to do with anger specifically? It isn’t hard to draw out several implications – to pluck some of the proverbial “low hanging fruit”.  Many of the things that we tend to get angry over are really matters that are outside of our control, and they also tend to be matters that are strictly speaking indifferent.  If we have mistaken views about these sorts of matters, we render ourselves vulnerable at a myriad of points to things going contrary to our expectations, to our desires to be stymied or interfered with, and to winding up experiencing or at least being threatened with what we feel aversion towards.

How does that then lead to anger, rather than other emotional responses, for example sadness, fear, grief, anxiety, or the like?  Considering this reveals an important factor that can get left out of the picture, one that makes anger a bit more of a complicated emotion.  When we get angry, we feel – and think ourselves – to have been wronged or injured, but we also desire to retaliate, to impose some kind of retribution, vindication, reckoning, and even if we don’t entirely justify ourselves in this, we do view it as at least partly right, as something that is good for us in some sense.

Anger doesn’t just stem in many cases from mistaken conceptions of what is and what is not in our control.  It also by its very nature steers us towards assuming or judging that some things that aren’t in our control are in our control – for instance whether we control whether the person we are angry with suffers in his or her core from the retaliation we attempt to impose on that person (what is more galling to the angry person than finding out that their attitude, words, or actions don’t bother the other person?), or how other people witnessing our angry response react to and speak about the situation.  And by contrast, things that are in our control – at least if we intervene quickly enough – like our own mental processes of getting angrier and angrier, tend to be framed as if they aren’t in our control at all.  In fact, one’s own responsibility often gets displaced onto the offending person – “he made me lose control, by deliberately pushing my buttons” is one common expression running along those lines.

Likewise, mistaken conceptions of what is genuinely good or bad are not only a component of anger.  Again, anger makes matters worse for us in that respect.  Seneca’s On Anger is particularly eloquent on this point. When we get angry we not only devalue things whose intrinsic goodness we ought to recognize – rationality, our shared human nature, even the truth itself – we do this because we wrongly view imposing retribution – something that is clearly an external, but somehow corresponds to our own internal emotions, desires, and judgements – as a good that trumps just about anything else in the situation.

It is not the easiest thing to do – but it does get easier with practice, since that effectively reshapes our habits (and it can be made easier by the support or counsel of other people as well) – but one effective course we can pursue when we are becoming angry, or when we are already feeling angry, is to try to remind ourselves about these key distinctions of Stoic philosophy.  This sort of deliberate restoration of perspective is precisely the sort of thing Epictetus repeatedly counsels us to practice (as do other Stoic writers), for example in Enchiridion chapter 4:

If you are going out of the house to bathe, put before your mind what happens at a public bath: those who splash you with water, those who jostle against you, those who vilify you and rob you. And thus you will set about your undertaking more securely if at the outset you say to yourself, “I want to take a bath, and, at the same time, to keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature.” And so do in every undertaking. For thus, if anything happens to hinder you in your bathing, you will be ready to say, “Oh, well, this was not the only thing that I wanted, but I wanted also to keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature; and I shall not so keep it if I am vexed at what is going on.”

As I pointed out during the workshop, framing the choice or prioritization one is faced with making in terms of maintaining one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature might feel rather abstract, but there are many closely connected – and more concrete – ways we can express this to ourselves.

Another important implication of these distinctions that we can help ourselves by considering is that what does not lie in our control is quite often in someone else’s control.  It is their business, their responsibility, and how they choose to behave stems from their viewpoints.  Those may be quite off-base, even vicious, but those mistakes are bad for them not for oneself.  Marcus Aurelius suggests (to himself, but also to us, his readers) a very useful way of looking at actions others do that could anger us:

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Epictetus and Seneca echo this advice at a number of points as well. Another useful counsel – also expressed by multiple authors – is that we consider our own anger as we might view it if it were to be felt and acted upon by another person. Seneca suggests:

Let us put ourselves in the place of him with whom we are angry. At present an overweening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure to be done to ourselves. (On Anger, 3.12)

This is a specific application of a point Epictetus makes somewhat more broadly in Enchiridion chapter 26, where he points out that it is much easier for us to treat the aggravations and losses others encounter as just the course of things, than for us to apply that same reasoning to our own experiences.  That is, however, something that we ought to do, which is why he suggests that we learn what the “will of nature” is by focusing on those matters in which we don’t actually differ from one another.

A Worry: What Happens If One Sets Anger Aside?

To bring this discussion to a close, I would like to introduce another issue that was touched upon, but not explored all that much during the workshop.  One of the concerns that arises for many people who struggle with their own anger, and who make a decision to deliberately move away from it as go-to emotional response, has to do with how they will manage without anger.  Speaking from experience, it does quite literally feel as if in adopting such a course – particularly when you’re in a concrete situation in which you perceive someone doing wrong – you are putting yourself at a disadvantage, setting aside the arms that you require, and have gotten used to, in the midst of precisely the sorts of conflicts that call for them.

It is worth pointing out that this worry is in one respect entirely legitimate.  If a person has been relying upon anger as his or her main way to deal successfully (or at least what appears so) with a variety of situations, that person will indeed be at a disadvantage, at least for a while.  Anger is not just something that occurs episodically, with zero connection between its breakouts.  Like so many other things, it quickly develops into a habit of its own, and sinks its roots into other habits and dispositions of a person.

So if, for instance, a child learned early on that, by getting angry and acting upon that anger, it became easier to brave conflict and redress perceived wrongs – perhaps not just through the child’s own experiences but also through observing the model provided by parents, teachers, and others – by the time that the child-turned-adult comes to realize that anger has developed into a serious problem, a longstanding pattern of excessive or disordered angry responses has been established, and that will feel natural to that person.  Going against that habit will not only seem unnatural and forced until old habits are broken and replaced by new ones, but will also make the person feel uncomfortably vulnerable, unsure about how to manage things.

When you start Seneca’s work On Anger, you’ll notice that a good portion of both book 1 and book 2 address commonplace views about anger that paint it in a more positive light – as something that is noble, or necessary, or at least useful for a person to feel.  Some of these he attributes directly to the Aristotelian school(mostly fairly, though sometimes not), while others are beliefs more generally widespread in classical culture.  Over and over, Seneca acknowledges that these contentions contain some initial plausibility, but then points out that when they are considered more closely, their irrationality comes to light.  A prime example of this occurs in book 1.

Aristotle says that “certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, act as arms”: which would be true if, like weapons of war, they could be taken up or laid aside at the pleasure of their wielder. These arms, which Aristotle assigns to virtue, fight of their own accord, do not wait to be seized by the hand, and possess a man instead of being possessed by him.

This by itself would be a serious problem – the weapon or tool of anger not remaining under control keeps it from performing whatever legitimate function it has – but Seneca points out a yet more significant issue.  When anger is habitually relied upon by a person, that stands in the way of using – and developing – a fundamentally human capacity, that of rationality.

What, then, can be more foolish than for reason to beg anger for protection. . .  [R]eason is far more powerful by itself even in performing those operations in which the help of anger seems especially needful. For when reason has decided that a particular thing should be done, she perseveres in doing it. (1.17)

What the person struggling with anger has to remind him or herself of, then, is that – although at first it will feel as if this is not the case – reason provides a much more secure means for attaining what is good for a person and protecting the person against what is bad for them.  The Stoic life is one that, if not yet entirely rational, is at least continually striving towards rationality.  This may not in the end (for many of us) mean an existence entirely removed from anger, but it can be one in which reason predominates, and enables us to successfully deal with anger when it arises.

Event Announcement – New York Stoic Camp

Join Greg Lopez (founder and organizer of the NYC Stoics, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon ’16) and Massimo Pigliucci (professor of philosophy at CUNY, founder and organizer of The Stoic School of Life, and co-organizer of Stoicon ’16) for an intensive introduction to the theory and practice of Stoicism at Stoic Camp NY 2017! The Camp will be run from August 31 – September 3 at Stony Point Center, in Stony Point, NY.

Over the course of 4 days and 3 nights, attendees will be guided through the philosophy of Stoicism. We will use ancient texts almost exclusively as our starting point. From there, we will discuss how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can be updated and practiced in the modern world.

Since this is an intensive introduction, it will be suitable for complete beginners. But given the intensive nature of the retreat, people familiar with Stoicism will also get quite a bit out of it (fate permitting). This year’s curriculum centered around the four virtues and featuring readings primarily from Seneca. Previous years have featured readings primarily from the Enchiridion and Meditations and were organized around the Three Disciplines. To get a taste of how the Camp is run, click here to view the 2016 Stoic Camp NY Handbook.

The Camp is limited to only 14 participants, and spots are almost full, although a waitlist is available. You can RSVP on the NYC Stoics Meetup page, and also find more information there. To RSVP for a single room, click here. To RSVP for a double room (to be matched with a roommate, or to bring your own), click here.

Let’s Take Care of Ourselves by Cinzia Arruzza

Four years ago I taught an undergraduate course on the Care of the Self. The course was based on selections from Roman Stoic texts, two of Plato’s dialogues, and from some of Michel Foucault’s late writings. Teaching this course marked my first real encounter with Stoicism. Of course, not in the sense that I hadn’t studied Stoic texts before – studying ancient philosophy is my profession –, but in the sense that for the first time these texts started talking to me beyond the narrow boundaries of historical philosophical interpretation. In other words, they started telling me something about my own way of life. I am quite confident that this was the effect of working with my students through Michel Foucault’s lectures.

In the last years of his life, before dying of a HIV related illness in 1984, Michel Foucault undertook an investigation into Greco-Roman philosophy. In 1982 he delivered a series of lectures at the Collège de France in Paris, published after his death and translated into English under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject. These lectures may not be entirely satisfying from the viewpoint of the exactitude and rigor of his interpretation of Stoic texts. And yet they are powerful, and at least part of their power resides in the fact that Foucault started studying the ancients in order to find answers to contemporary questions, both ethical and political ones, questions concerning power and freedom, autonomy and heteronomy in the age of modernity. Through Foucault’s lectures, Stoic ethics ceased being a dead object of study to me, and rather began a form of interrogation about what Plato considered to be the most important of questions: ‘How ought we to live our life? What shall we make of ourselves?’

As the title of Foucault’s lectures makes clear, their main object of investigation is the subject. In the first lecture, Foucault articulates the guiding thesis of his research. First of all, that the main concern of ancient philosophy is the ‘care of the self’, rather than the ‘knowing yourself’ imperative. The care of the self includes both sets of theories and of practices aiming at forming specific kinds of subjects. Secondly, according to Foucault, for Greco-Roman philosophers knowledge is an activity of self-transformation, insofar as the subject ought to transform itself in order to gain access to the truth. This turn to ancient philosophy represented an element of partial discontinuity in Foucault’s own work. As he explains in an interview:

Up to that point I had conceived the problem of the relationship between the subject and games of truth in terms either of coercive practices – such as those of psychiatry and the prison system – or of theoretical and scientific games – such as the analysis of wealth, of language, and of living beings. In my lectures at the Collège de France, I tried to grasp it in terms of what may be called a practice of the self . . . .It is what one could call an ascetic practice, taking asceticism in a very general sense – in other words, not in the sense of a morality of renunciation but as an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being. (‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, in M. Foucault, Ethics. Subjectivity and Truth 1997, pp. 281-282 )

In Foucault’s view there is no essence of the human being: human beings are fundamentally what they do make of themselves throughout history. In his previous research, Foucault had focused on the power relations, institutions, and discourses that constitute us as subjects, that is, that have made and make us into the kind of human beings we have become. The turn to the Stoics, on the contrary, allows Foucault to take a different angle and to analyze philosophical practices and discourses that enable us to rather constitute ourselves as subjects in an active way, that is, to shape ourselves, to transform ourselves, carving in this way a greater space for freedom. Following the French classicist Pierre Hadot’s research on this matter, Foucault paid great attention not just to Stoic arguments, but to their practices and exercises, which he called ‘technologies of the self’ and which, in his view, had a great influence on the history of Western philosophy, morality, and spirituality. These exercises are integral part of the care of the self as they are the actions by which a Stoic would purify and transform herself.

Here is how Foucault summarizes the way Stoic exercises combine with theoretical arguments to give birth to a form of knowledge that is different from a standard modern understanding of knowledge:

First it [i.e. knowledge] involves the subject changing his position, either rising to the summit of the universe to see it in its totality, or striving to descend into the heart of things. In any case, the subject cannot properly know by remaining where he is. . . Second, on the basis of this shift in the subject’s position there is the possibility of grasping both the reality and the value of things. And what is meant by “value” is the place, relations, and specific dimension of things within the world, as well as their relation to, their importance for, and their real power over the human subject insofar as he is free. Third, this spiritual knowledge involves the subject’s ability to see himself and grasp himself in his reality. It involves a kind of “self-viewing”. . . . Fourth, and finally, the effect of this knowledge on the subject is assured by the fact that the subject not only fins his freedom in it, but in his freedom he also finds a mode of being, which is one of happiness and of every perfection of which he is capable. (M. Foucault, The Hermeneutic of the Subject, New York 2005, p. 308)

What Foucault means by ‘spiritual knowledge’ does not have to do with religion or mysticism: what he means is knowledge as entailing self-transformation, both as a precondition to achieve knowledge and as its end-result. Let me analyze now three different exercises in order to see how they entail the four elements identified by Foucault, namely: 1) the subject’s change of position; 2) the evaluation of things on the basis of their reality within the kosmos; 3) self-seeing; 4) and self-transformation through the effect of knowledge:

Let us begin with the Meditation on Death, an exercise consisting in considering every of our days as our last day. Seneca gives an example of this exercise in his Letter XII:

[D]eath ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive summons is not determined by our precedence in the register . . .Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up to the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives. (Seneca, Letter XII, in Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, London 2004)

The point of the exercise is not simply that we should free ourselves from the fear of death, but also that the meditation on death provides us with a rule concerning how we ought to live our day: not wasting our time, not postponing to tomorrow the tasks we are supposed to accomplish today, not having expectations concerning tomorrow, evaluating each of our actions as we were at the point of dying. One may wonder why living every day as if it were the last should motivate us to achieve moral perfection: the thought of death could, indeed, paralyze us with fear and anxiety, or develop in us an acute sense of the meaningless of existence.

In Seneca the exercise presupposes the notion that our individual death is part of a larger rational order of things, which we ought to accept precisely because it is rational, hence good. While our death does not depend on us, what we can determine is how we ought to die and live the death and life that fate has allotted to us, for it is only this ‘how’ that is morally meaningful to us. In the exercise we are required to adopt the viewpoint of the cosmic order of things – which also orders our death – rather than our individual viewpoint. This exercise, therefore, entails all four of Foucault’s elements.

The invitation to adopt the viewpoint of universal reason is at the core of another exercise that we find both in Seneca and in Marcus Aurelius, ‘the view from above’:

One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2011)

The aim of this exercise is to learn to look at our own life not from the viewpoint of our subjective experience, but from a viewpoint seemingly external to us, far above, in order to be able to correctly position human existence, and therefore our own existence, within the universe. This exercise should, therefore, liberate us from perturbations, anxieties, fears, and frustration arising from the excessive centrality we attribute to our personal experiences whenever we lose the sense of our relation to the whole or we lose sight of our smallness within it.

Here, once again, one might wonder why looking at ourselves and other human beings from above should have this purifying effect on our passions. As in the case of the meditation on death, I could, for example, fall into nihilism or existential angst the moment I realize how small and insignificant my life is within the infinity of time and space. Think of the first season of True Detective: Rustin Cohle is acutely aware that human beings are less than dots in the infinite universe, but this awareness leads him to a bitter nihilism, to considering human existence as merely futile, at least until the final episode in which he rediscovers some form of rationality in the universe.

So, what is that makes ‘the view from above’ work? In Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the efficacy of this exercise presupposes two correlated notions: the first is that the cosmos is rationally ordered and that everything in it is rationally interwoven. The second is that in order to avoid perturbations we ought to look at ourselves and at what happens to us through the eyes of the cosmos. Insofar as the cosmos is rational, this also means appraising the rationality of our own place within this well organized whole. Moreover, insofar as the cosmos is rational, looking at ourselves and at the other human beings through the eye of the cosmos also means to adopt the gaze of universal reason. Finally, the more we do the exercise and acquire the habit of correctly judge our own position within the larger whole, the more we train our ruling core, hence transforming ourselves.

Let me give you the third and final example, this time from Epictetus. This is a different exercise from the two I have mentioned so far, for it requires rather that we pay attention to each and every impression we receive from the world around us:

As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or a beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away. What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you. (Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.14, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2014)

The aim of this exercise is to train our ruling center – our rational soul – to correctly evaluate the impressions received from the world. Here, once again, a change of position of the subject is required, insofar as she has to look at impressions in a different way, by pausing on each and every one and interrogating herself concerning their nature. To correctly evaluate impressions means to correctly grasp the place they occupy in the whole and evaluate the power they have on us. Moreover, to correctly judge also means to be able to deal with our impressions ‘according to nature’. The nature of our mind is to assent only to the true and to strive only for the good. Why? Because our mind is part and parcel of universal reason, it shares its same nature, but while universal reason does not make mistakes, we do, out of ignorance and because of the influence of passions. By training our mind to correctly judge impressions, we are therefore striving to make our mind as similar as possible to cosmic reason. Hence we are striving both to knowledge and to transform ourselves.

Of course, some problems arise with Foucault’s interpretation of the Stoics when we start asking what we should mean by ‘self’ in the Stoics. When a Stoic takes care of herself, what is she taking care for? When she transforms herself through these practices, what is the self that she is transforming and what is the self that is the outcome of this transformation? Pierre Hadot, for example, criticized Foucault for misunderstanding what ‘self’ means in Stoic philosophy. Contrary to Foucault’s insistence on Stoic exercises as a form of ‘cultivation of the self’, Hadot argues, the aim of the exercises is the withdrawal in the interiority of the self, but with the ultimate goal of going beyond the individual self, of fully identifying oneself with nature. As Hadot clarifies:

The preceding remarks are not intended to be relevant only to an historical analysis of ancient philosophy. They are also an attempt at defining an ethical model which modern man (sic!) can discover in antiquity. What I am afraid of is that, by focusing his interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self – more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence – M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic. In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth century style. (P. Hadot, ‘Reflections on the Idea of the “Cultivation of the Self”, in Philosophy as a Way of Life 1995, p. 211)

In other words, Hadot is worried that, by emphasizing excessively the notion of cultivation of the self, Foucault ends up interpreting Stoic exercises as entirely focused on the personal self and as articulating a form of individualism that only belongs to modernity. Moreover, he is worried that Foucault misunderstood pleasure for happiness, and that – as a consequence – his reading of the Stoics is influenced by aestheticism.

In the conclusion of this short lecture, let me try to partially defend Foucault’s position and to explain why I think that his lectures on the Stoics are relevant. Hadot is certainly right that Foucault makes mistakes of interpretation. This, however, may not be significant, because Foucault is not really doing history of philosophy in his lectures, he is rather appropriating and using some aspects of Stoic philosophy for a different purpose. The reason why he is interested in retrieving and analyzing that form of knowledge that he calls ‘spiritual’ is that he thinks that the Stoics provide us with a possible alternative ethics, an ethics that opens up a space for freedom within the network of power relations in which we are immersed. This ethics is based on the practice of fashioning ourselves, for our relationship and our actions towards others will descend from this self-fashioning.

The Stoics provide us with an example of the possibility of living one’s life and shape oneself according to the tenets and rules deriving from one’s philosophical commitments, rather than from traditional culture and society, without for this reason withdrawing from society. This has little to do with Dandyism, in spite of Foucault’s perhaps misleading use of the formula ‘aesthetics of existence’. Rather, Foucault is trying to identify in the care of the self a form of resistance, which can also allow us to play a critical role towards the society in which we live and the power relations in which we are immersed – as his lectures on parrhesia, or frankness of speech, show. Perhaps this could be exemplified through the formula “we cannot change our surroundings without also changing ourselves”. Or that we should already embody as far as possible the change we want to see in the outer world.

Foucault’s reading of the Stoics may have important flaws, but his insight into the way in which Stoic philosophy can become relevant to the way we address today the issue of power and of what we ought to make of ourselves in our relation to power has contributed to make Stoic philosophy alive again. At least for me.

This post is the transcript of Professor Arruzza’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

Cinzia Arruzza is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.  Her research interests include ancient metaphysics and political thought, Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, feminist theory and Marxism. She is the author of Plotinus, Ennead II.5: On What Is Potentially and What Actually (Parmenides Publishing 2015) and she is currently completing a book on tyranny in Plato’s Republic, under contract with Oxford University Press.

Stoic Week 2017 Report (part 4 of 4) by Tim Lebon

This article is the fourth part of the report on Stoic Week 2016. The previously published parts of the report summarised the demographics, the level of happiness and Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week, the impact of taking part in Stoic Week on well-being.

This report is divided into two sections:

  • Participant feedback at the end of Stoic week on various parts of the materials[1] and their experience.
  • Overall conclusions and recommendations

You can StoicWeek Report Part 4 2016.

Participant Feedback

How useful were the audio recordings?

As in previous years participants were invited to listen to a number of audio recordings. Table 1 below shows participants’ ratings of the recommended audio recordings. The early and morning meditations were part of the recommended daily routine, the Stoic Attitudes meditation was an optional additional resource and the View from Above was part of the programme for Sunday (Nature).

How useful was this recording (on a scale of 0-5?)

0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating (out of 5) No of people who listened to it (/294)
Stoic Attitudes Meditation 2
4 115
Early Morning
3.9 113
Late Evening
4 106
View from Above
4 111

Table 1: Ratings of Audio recordings of Meditation Routine Audio Recordings, Stoic Week 2016

All the recordings received good ratings, averaging around 4 out of 5. Similar numbers reported listening to each recording.

How useful were the recommended Daily Stoic Exercises?

Table 2 below shows how highly participants rated each of the daily Stoic exercises as well as the number of people who completed each activity and their ratings of the exercises.

  How useful was this exercise (leave blank if you did not do to it) on a scale from 0 (not at all useful) to 5 (extremely useful)?  
Daily Stoic Exercise 0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating /5 No of people who did activity
Stoic Self-Monitoring Record 1
3.8 136


Monday: Life – writing your own meditations 1
4.1 216


Tuesday :Control –What is in our control and wishing with reservation 0
4.2 240


Wednesday: Mindfulness – Stoic Mindfulness and examining your impressions 0
4.2 240


Thursday: Virtues: Virtue and values clarification 0
4.1 222


Friday: Relationships: Relationships with other people and Society and the Circle of Hierocles 2
3.9 226


Saturday: Adversity: Preparing for Adversity 0
4.1 219


Sunday: Nature and the view from above 1
4 205


Table 2: Ratings of Daily Stoic Exercises in Stoic Week 2016 (294 respondents) 

The activities which had the highest rating and were also the most popular were Tuesday – What is in our control and Wednesday – Stoic Mindfulness. It should be noted that all the activities had a high approval rating (3.8 or more out of 5). A large percentage of participants completed each activity.

In which areas of life was Stoic Week most helpful?

  How much has Stoic Week helped in this area? (leave blank if not relevant)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 Average Rating


(2015 rating in brackets)

Relationships (friendships, getting on with people) 2


Becoming a better person 0


Becoming wiser 1


Knowledge of Stoicism 2


Other 1


Overall 0


Table 3: Ratings of how useful Stoic Week was in various areas of life?

As shown in table 3 (above), Stoic Week achieved an 82% usefulness rating overall (4.1/5). The area where Stoic Week was judged to be of most use was Knowledge of Stoicism, followed closely by becoming a better person and becoming wiser. Despite the theme of Stoic Week 2016 being love, relationships still received the lowest rating (3.6, the same as in 2015). The “other” ways in which Stoic Week helped people included “accepting myself”, “removing worrying thoughts”, “ reducing anxiety”, “structuring a daily practice” and “handling adversity”.

Some participants provided further information about exactly how Stoic Week helped, for example


  • “definitely pausing before speaking more!”
  • “Being less critical”
  • “Letting go of the effects of awful people”
  • “My wife and I did it together this year”
  • “I don’t usually think much about relationships, so this was all kind of new.”

Becoming a Better Person

  • “Less impulsive”
  • “More introspective”
  • “Has helped me to not be emotionally hijacked in various social scenarios, thus allowing me more focus to be a better person.”

How long did participants spend on Stoic Week each day?

The average time spent by participants came out as an impressive 37 minutes (very similar to last year’s figure of 36 minutes). As shown in Figure 1 (below), most participants reported spending over half an hour on Stoic Week each day. A significant number of people spent longer each day.

Minutes per day % No of people
Less than 5 minutes 12% 5
5 -15 12% 33
15 -30 28% 77
30-45 27% 73
35-60 13% 35
More than an hour 19% 51

Table 4: How long did you spend on Stoic Week activities each day?

Which formats for the Stoic Week Handbook proved to be most popular?

As shown in table 5   (below), 39% of participants reported using the website, 36% of participants used the pdf booklet. whilst 10% used Kindle and 13% epub.[2] Compared with 2015, this shows a small but definite shift away from the pdf booklet towards epub and html.

Format % 2015 comparison  
1. HTML / Website (Modern Stoicism or other) 39 32
2. EPUB 13 8  
3. PDF 36 49
4. MOBI (Kindle) 10 10
Other 2 2

Table 5: What was the main format you used for accessing Stoic Week?

Which of these formats would be useful for you in accessing Stoic Week?

Format % 2015 comparison
Android App 34 37
IOS App 37 36
Mobi format booklet 12 12
Epub format booklet 15 12
Other 2 2

Table 6: Which formats would be useful for accesing Stoic Week?

When participants were asked which formats would be useful, a sizeable number of people requested an App, with Android and IOS in roughly equal demand. About a third as many people would like to see a booklet made available in mobi or epub format. It is debatable as to how much added value an App would bring. One view is that what people really value is push notifications which could be provided in other ways (e.g. by text or email). Your further thoughts would be valued.

Feedback on the Questionnaires

Some people appreciated having the feedback from the SABS questionnaire, which can provide pointers about areas of Stoicism to work on. There were also some criticisms as detailed below.

  • It would be good to have a list of the stoic attitudes published online
  • Found a few questions ambiguous. Also easy to game if you were so inclined.
  • It was informative
  • Personally would appreciate more distinction between what I BELIEVE vs what I PRACTICE. I believe in Stoicism but have a hard time practicing and some questions made it unclear whether it was referencing what I believe or what I actually practice.
  • They are useful but SABS is far too long (though assume you are looking to select items that “work”). The positive and negative affect measures refer to the previous 4 weeks so will pick up feelings before Stoic Week even when measured afterwards – hence diluting the effect. For people (such as myself) who already practice Stoicism, I wouldn’t expect Stoic Week to have much effect – so seems important to control for level of previous practice when analysing the effects.
  • Pretty good questions related to Stoicism.
  • Its interesting to gauge ones qualities and understanding
  • Useful

There is room for refinement of the questions so they are in some cases clearer and less ambiguous. The SABS questionnaire is long but as the commentator realised, this is deliberate as we are in the process of working out which questions are most relevant. The final version to be used with the general public should be shorter and in more simple a language. The suggestion about controlling for previous level of Stoicism is a good one. This could be done by looking at the scores of those who were the least Stoic at the beginning of Stoic week and/or who had not done Stoic week or attempted to practice Stoicism before.

Overall Conclusions and Recommendations

Drawing together the above feedback and the other qualitative feedback (found in the full report) with the findings report in the first 3 parts of these report, the most significant findings from Stoic Week 2016 are as follows:

    • 77% of respondents were participating in Stoic Week for the first time.
    • The ratio of males to females was 66% to 33%
    • Over 43% of respondents were from USA
    • Less people completed the initial set of questionnaires compared to 2015 (1798 down from 2503) although the numbers registering for Stoic Week actually increased (3365 up from 3080)

Analysis from initial set of questionnaires taken at the start of Stoic Week

  • There is a correlation coefficient of .4 between Stoicism and well-being. Given the size of the sample (nearly two thousand), the chances of this association being accidental is less than one in a million.
  • Stoicism does go with positive emotions as much as with the reduction of negative emotions.
  • There is only a weak association between stated knowledge of Stoicism and average well-being (a correlation co-efficient of about .1) , whereas it’s nearly four times higher for people who practise Stoicism.
  • The over 55s were the most Stoic and in general the older people are, the more Stoic they are.
  • The Americas win the contest for most Stoic geographic areas The UK (stiff upper lip notwithstanding) trails the field.
  • SABS with by far the strongest association with well-being (however it is measured) item 22 , asking about ruminating and worrying. Stoic virtues also do very well, with courage, practical wisdom , compassion, self-control and fairness all scoring highly. Cognitive distancing (item 24) scores well, as does using the Stoic Ideal Advisor and items to do with seeing humanity as connected and Stoic Cosmopolitanism.

Analysis from second set of questionnaires taken at the end of Stoic Week

  • For the fourth year running, taking part in Stoic Week led to a significant increase in well-being on all measures. The results were remarkably similar to 2015.
  • The SABS items that showed the biggest increase, cognitive distancing and reducing rumination, are both significantly related to improvements in mental health as well as well-being.
  • Those who change most in their degree of Stoicism changed substantially more in terms of well-being than those who changed least in their degree of Stoicism. This supports the hypothesis that the change in well-being is largely attributable to participant’s being more Stoic.
  • A cause for concern is the reduced number of participants completing the questionnaire after Stoic Week.

Summary of qualitative feedback

  • Most participants gave a high rating to experience overall and the materials used, including the audio recordings and daily exercise.
  • Participants additionally reported Stoic Week to be helpful in helping them to be better people, to become wiser, with relationships and to become more knowledgeable about Stoicism.
  • There was a slight shift away from using the pdf booklet towards using other formats
  • There were some specific suggestions to improve formatting and structure of the handbook
  • There was a desire expressed to be notified more on a daily basis during Stoic Week
  • Some people would like the opportunity to interact more within a more private network group
  • Many participants were very grateful for the opportunity to take part in Stoic Week and described the ways in which they had benefited

Pulling these ideas together, there follows some recommendations for future Stoic weeks

  • Repeat the experience – a lot of people took part and benefited
  • There is a case for doing something different so that people who participated in previous years will learn something new. Perhaps a Stoic handbook based on Seneca could be developed
  • There is a good case for longer experiences of Stoicism than one week. The SMRT course already addresses this, and this should be run again and incorporate the same research that is used for Stoic week.
  • In addition, it would be desirable to do a follow-up (e.g. 3 or 6 months) to see if the benefits have been maintained or not. This would be particularly relevant for the SMRT course.
  • There was an issue this year with some people not receiving notifications on a daily basis. In fact, mails were sent automatically, so it is not clear why they were not all received. Perhaps there was an issue with spam filters which needs to be addressed. Perhaps there are other “push notification” options available from WordPress other than email.
  • People should be encouraged to use formats other than pdf unless printing, as pdf is designed mainly for printing.
  • Regarding the questionnaires, there was a much reduced number of people filling in the questionnaires at the end of the week. This may have been partly due to people not receiving daily emails, or perhaps for other unknown reasons. There is a case for ensuring we can notify people about filling in the questionnaire, which we cannot do at present if they provide only a pseudonym and have not registered with Stoicism Today.
  • The SABS questionnaire should be continued to be developed and the feedback provided to people is thought useful. However there is scope for the questions to be less ambiguous in some cases.
  • Some thought should be given to how to make Stoic week more known or more appealing to those who do not take part so much currently
  • As technology changes, there will be scope for integrating new opportunities (e.g. private social media groups, videos, push notifications so people can be reliably informed each day) and these should be investigated

[1] To view the Stoic Week 2016 materials see Registration may be required.

[2] Epub is an open standard used for example on iBooks on Apple devices and Google Books on Android.

Applying Stoicism: The Stoic Career by Travis Hume

We live in a world in which events constantly interplay. Our circumstances are a product of this world process; of things coming, interacting, and going. Many of the systems of which we are a part are directed by individuals acting upon various motivations. These systems result in conventional occupations: teaching, business, medicine, writing, soldiering, the arts, sciences, and others.

The conditions in which we are born and raised account for some roles we hold. In addition to these are roles gained through our pursuits. Roles may seem to complement, contradict, or rarely influence one another. The available means and methods to fulfill our roles vary. We alone choose the manner in which we make use of the means, and which methods to employ. In short, the roles we possess may be the result of forces entirely outside our control (e.g., being a brother or sister), or from pursuits facilitated by others (e.g., becoming a manager); individually, we choose our approach to the duties entailed in these roles.

The conventional challenges and rewards of roles serve as material for the practicing Stoic’s ultimate pursuit: “Living in accordance with Nature.” That is, “Eudaimonia.” – a state of tranquility, fulfillment, and intellectual and emotional self-sufficiency. Our duties, entailed by our roles, may be used to cultivate the Virtues: characteristics that are beneficial to human beings as social and rational animals. “Living in accordance with Nature,” i.e. attaining “Eudaimonia,” is accomplished through consistent, deliberate self-improvement.

With time, care, and effort in applying Stoic philosophy, it will become clear that many current and potential roles may be used for this self-improvement. The collective, conventional challenges entailed in our duties lose much of their bite, and peace of mind is no longer gained or lost as fortunes change. With conscious practice, a Stoic moves the locus of control and value from externals to within themselves, binding it to their exercise of choice. The difficulty of maintaining this control varies according to the severity of difficulties at hand, the number and extent of currently held roles, and the practicing Stoic’s skills in understanding and applying their philosophy to given circumstances.

Prior to pursuing a new role, the practicing Stoic makes an assessment of their current relevant skills, the type of interactions between the role in question and currently held roles, and the characteristics that may be improved through the potential role. The Stoic understands that human beings have physiological limits, and will take care to balance their roles to ensure free time is available. The Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed this in book VIII of The Meditations: “Be not a sluggard in action, nor confused in conversation, nor wandering in imagination. Briefly, neither contract into yourself, nor boil over in spirit, nor in your mode of life leave no room for leisure.”

If very little free time is available due to holding excessive numbers of roles (regardless of good intentions), it undermines the Stoic’s ability to properly fulfill their duties, and the overall quality of their efforts will suffer. At best, the consequence is an increased risk of improperly applying Stoic philosophy. At worst, the physiological strain will compromise the Stoic, greatly limiting their ability to help themselves, much less others. This idea was adhered to even among the most industrious ancient Stoics, such as the Stoic statesman and military official Cato the Younger, who drank socially during discussions on philosophy, and reserved time for vacations.

The primary motivation behind pursuing new roles will be self-improvement – learning to “live in accordance with Nature.” External considerations, such as an increase in pay, authority, or notoriety may be considered preferentially, but will never rival or supersede this core motivation. The Stoic schoolmaster Epictetus stresses this, as put in writing by his student Arrian in Book IV of The Discourses:

I don’t call a man industrious just because he reads or writes a great deal, not even if he works all night, unless I know what he is working at. If the object of his work is his Governing Principle, if he is working to make his life a natural one, then I call him industrious.

It falls to the practicing Stoic to identify whether self-improvement remains a core motivation, concerning their pursuits. External rewards are meant to serve as tools for self-improvement, and not as ends in themselves.

In the course of a role, a Stoic will choose speech, behaviors, and actions that prioritize philosophical consistency and appropriate intention over personal comfort and external advantages. For example: A workplace accident occurs ten minutes before the current shift is supposed to end, and a Stoic and their coworker witness it. According to workplace rules, due to the nature and severity of this particular accident, a lengthy document must be submitted. The coworker suggests cleaning up the accident without documenting it, to save time. While it is possible that the accident will still be discovered after being cleaned up, it is very unlikely.

There are several considerations in this situation. It is clear that the coworker prefers “saving time” over fulfilling this particular job expectation. The full, true motivation of the coworker, however, is known only to them. The Stoic may find that they too would prefer to head home on time. In this circumstance, the philosophically consistent choice is to follow through with the documentation, while briefly explaining the basis of the decision to the coworker.

Personal integrity is a fundamental moment-to-moment consideration, as detailed by the Stoic advisor and playwright Seneca in book V of the Epistles:

Every action in life is regulated with consideration of the honorable and the base. The rationale for acting or not acting is controlled by this consideration. A good man will do what he thinks honorable even if it is laborious, he will do it even if it be damaging to him, even if it be dangerous to him. On the other hand he will not do what is base, even for money, for pleasure, or power. Nothing can deflect him from the honorable, nothing tempt him to what is base.

If it is the case that the negligent behavior of the coworker may result in a dangerous situation being mishandled for the sake of convenience, it falls to the Stoic to inform a supervisor in addition.

Choosing to document the accident despite having the option of avoiding it serves several purposes. The first, the act of following through with the duty despite a preference to do otherwise earns the Stoic experience in acting upon deliberate choice. Acting in the face of the preference in order to do something difficult also builds corresponding characteristics: Fortitude, patience, and courage. The act of doing something difficult despite being able to avoid it is a reward that will remain with the Stoic in the form of having “consciously done the right thing for its own sake,” i.e. a deliberate act to cultivate Virtue.

The Stoic schoolmaster (and Epictetus’ teacher) Musonius Rufus touches on this in “XLXI” of the fragments of his lectures, as put down by his pupil Lucius:

If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains.

The coworker may be moved by the approach to make a similar choice in the future.

In the previous example, the Stoic overcame a desire to avoid a challenge, choosing instead to make use of it as material for self-improvement. Other examples include: (1) Approaching a supervisor over concerns about unsafe workplace conditions, despite potentially drawing negative attention from the supervisor themselves. (2) Gathering data on questionable decisions by one’s organization’s administration –decisions that may lead to significant job losses – and presenting an argument for the defense of the positions if the data does not reflect a need for the losses. (3) Taking it upon oneself to complete a personal project intended to streamline a part of one’s organization, even if it proves time-consuming.

As social and rational animals, effective self-improvement depends in large part on conduct in relation to others. With very rare exceptions, most roles concern other persons, and the roles held by those persons. The role of the Stoic is to use conventional roles for self-improvement, while simultaneously aiding others. The Stoic becomes a leader by example as the result of fulfilling duties to the best of their ability. – potentially inspiring others to aim for the same.

The Stoic career is one of life-long self-development. The work centers on cultivating Virtue and reigning in personal Vice (Virtue’s opposite) through careful self-management. External rewards and difficulties ultimately serve as material for philosophical practice. The Stoic pursues opportunities that will provide further means to test, refine, and apply their grasp of their philosophy. Further, the practicing Stoic comes to see their efforts as contributions to the well-functioning of the universe of which they are a part. As a result, success ceases to depend on increasing fame, wealth, or power, instead resting squarely on self-improvement, appropriate intentions, and deliberate exercise of choice.

Travis Hume is a special education paraprofessional, and the creator, administrator, and writer of the facebook group Applying Stoicism. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

Stoicism, Parenthood, and Adoption by Pete Abilla

When Vice Admiral James Stockdale whispered to himself before becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”, he was unknowingly also describing parenthood. In a similar vein, a parent might say to herself “I’m leaving the world of being single and entering the world of marriage and parenthood.”

While parenthood is nothing like the suffering and depravity that one goes through as a prisoner of war, the lessons that Vice Admiral James Stockdale learned from Epictetus that helped him get through and come out better for having gone through that experience, are just as relevant to help a parent get through the ennobling and difficult experience of parenthood.

In this article, I wish to describe how I’ve applied Stoic principles to parenthood. Indeed, Stoic principles are both practical and effective and are absolutely relevant in parenthood.

My Story: Entering Parenthood with no Instruction Manual

My wife and I were married young – I at age 22 and she at 21. Shortly after our marriage, we had our first child, followed by 2 more and then we had twins after that. Getting married young while I was still an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student, had its challenges. Add children to that equation and it doubled the challenges we faced.

At the time, financial challenges seemed to be at the forefront of my mind: how do I support my young and growing family while still in school? To make ends meet, I was fortunate to have a scholarship, but I also worked 20-30 hours per week while carrying a full undergraduate and graduate school load.

But in retrospect, quality time with my wife and family was really the scarce resource. Money is fleeting and we got through just fine with the meager income I was bringing in. We were happy with what we had. But because I was busy with school and work, I should’ve been more concerned with the time I was away from my family rather than money concerns.

Seneca, in his discussion regarding the shortness of life, says:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

He’s right. In retrospect, I should’ve protected my time better and spent more of my time with the people I love.

Increase our Family Size by 80% through Adoption

After having 5 children, I thought we were done. But, my wife felt differently and, even though I denied it at the time, I knew we weren’t done either.

After some discussion, we felt a calling to add to our family through adoption. While we were deliberate and purposeful in our decision to adopt, I can’t really think of any rational reason why we did so. As anti-stoic as that seems now, we both just felt the need to serve humanity in a unique way. For us, that was to be through adoption. I guess, it’s not as anti-stoic as it seems. After all, Marcus Aurelius was fond of declaring that we were made for each other, to serve one another. In his words, “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”

So, after going through the difficult, expensive, and patience-testing process of adoption, we were very fortunate to have been able to adopt 4 more children within 3 years.  If you’ve lost count, I don’t blame you. That brings our family size to 9 kids. Our oldest is now 18 and youngest is 7.

Kids are People too, but Smaller: Expect Hard Times

Kids are developing little human beings. As such, they’re full of wonder, questions, energy, and innocence. Sometimes, they’re pretty hard to deal with. But, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Why? Because children are just a smaller version of grown-ups – and, we know through experience, adults aren’t the easiest to get along with.

Gratefully, Marcus Aurelius gave us an exercise to put us in the right frame of mind that is helpful for dealing with children as well as adults:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly . . .

Like adults, some kids are messy, impatient, unruly, disobedient, etc. In sum – being a parent is the perfect laboratory to exercise stoicism. If one can deal with difficult children with dignity and virtue, then dealing with adults will be a doable task to be sure.

Eat Your Vegetables or I’ll Make You: Do what is in Your Control

Kids need guidance, coaching, and teaching. They also have free will and sometimes they want to exercise their free will in ways that we, as parents know, are not productive or will be harmful to themselves. There’s a point where they need to learn on their own. As parents, what we can do is provide guidance and simultaneously allow them their agency. But how is this possible?

One way we’ve done this is to provide options to our children. For example, every Saturday we have family jobs where we clean the house, do chores, basic stuff. One daughter is normally really good about helping out, but this particular Saturday she was really cranky. When it was time to work, she didn’t want to do her assigned job.

I stepped back. Took a deep breath. Remembered Epictetus. Then, I offered her options. I named 4 or 5 jobs and she can pick any of them. To my surprise, she was cool with that. She chose the job she wanted to do and simultaneously she fulfilled her duty as a family member by helping around the house.

This is how we’ve applied Epictetus’ admonition to do what is in our control. In this instance, I didn’t force her to work. I simply offered her options of work, and she chose one. She exercised her agency and I did what was in my control and I didn’t use coercion or force.

In the beginning of the Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches us the following:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

My daughter felt heard and validated. She exercised her free will. And, as her parent, I was able to get her help to clean the house and teach her the principle of work and cooperation.

Marcus Aurelius believed that we, humans, were actually made to work together – to cooperate. In his words,

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

Working together in society is important, but it is even more so in a family.

Teach Resilience Over Mashed Potatoes

Parents learn from their children but parents are also teachers. Epictetus discusses the role of imitation and how we imitate those that are above us. In the Discourses, Epictetus describes a situation where the governor of Epirus favors a comedian at a play. He then uses that situation to teach an important lesson by asking the governor: “For whom have the many to imitate, but you, their superiors?” (Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 4).

What he is trying to say is that those above us have an obligation to model the right behaviors for those that are below us. This is a great lesson especially for parents and children. One way we’ve tried to apply this practice in our family is to have healthy discussions at the dinner table.

For example, during dinner I might ask:

  • What challenges did you have at school today? What did you learn? What did you do to overcome the challenge you faced?
  • What experiences did you have today where you really enjoyed what you were learning or doing? What if you were thinking of something else? Would you have enjoyed the present moment as much as you did?

Questions like these are great because they cause us all to reflect on our day and they usually generate very healthy dining table discussion.

Every moment can be a teaching moment. We need to remember to model the right behaviors for our children, knowing full well they will grow up to imitate what they saw us doing. Questions relevant for parents are:

  • Am I modeling the right behavior for my children?
  • What are my children growing towards? Do I want them to grow up to be like me? If not, what changes can I make in my behavior so they will grow up to be the people they can be proud of?

What is in our control is how we behave and what we think and do. Our children notice everything we do. If we want them to grow up to be virtuous and good human beings then, we too, must model the behavior of good, virtuous human beings.

Parenthood is a Laboratory – A Really Messy One

Children present dozens – no, hundreds . . . no, thousands – of opportunities to either get angry, impatient, upset, frustrated, or mad. Or, you can view each situation an opportunity to exercise a virtue and improve upon a character flaw, which we all have.

Epictetus gives us some guidance:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use… If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.

A few practical examples:

  • Your child throws a tantrum in public, exercise patience and gain practice reasoning with the unreasonable.
  • Your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, exercise the use of logic and present options to the child and teach them about consequences of their actions.
  • Your teenager comes home after curfew, explain to them that their actions affect others and teach them to own up to their actions by manfully accepting their consequences.

There are many more examples that life as a parent provides. . . .

Parenthood is Hard and Kids will Humble You: Enjoy Every Minute

With all the trials, tribulations, and humbling experiences that parenthood brings, with the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable. In fact, Marcus Aurelius tells us so:

Concentrate every minute… on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions… You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?

A number of years ago when my twins were two years old, my son got into the peanut butter. No, it wasn’t a small jar either – it was one of those massive Costco jars of peanut butter that was designed to feed an army.

The picture this post starts with is of my son – playing with peanut butter. I swear, I turned my back to do something and within 120 seconds, he was in the peanut butter.

Instead of being angry at the mess I’d have to clean, I made the choice to enjoy the moment, take a picture for posterity, and show gratitude that I was given the chance to experience something so funny and memorable.

We have no promise of tomorrow. Only today. So, God willing, enjoy the time that you have with your children. They are a gift and we have been called to be good, virtuous stewards. Enjoy every moment and do well.

In Seneca’s words, “[Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

Pete Abilla is a struggling stoic. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and they are the proud parents of 9 wonderful kids. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Mathematics from Brigham Young University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Computer Science from The University of Chicago. He owns a tutoring marketplace that has over 100,000 private tutors. You can find him on Twitter  and connect with him on Linkedin.