Updates About Stoic Week, Stoicon-X Events, and Stoicon

We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the upcoming Stoic Week, the Stoicon-X events, and the main Stoicon over the last month, and that’s a sign that it’s time for some updates and additional information about all of those Stoicism-themed happenings in September and October.

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, Stoic Week begins right after the main Stoicon conference. This year it starts on Monday, October 7 and runs through Sunday, October 13. Stoic Week offers participants the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title for the week the first year it was offered), by participating in a structured set of daily Stoic exercises and short readings from Stoic texts. These can be found in a downloadable handout, which we update each year, and make available here on the Modern Stoicism site shortly before Stoic Week begins.

Another key feature of Stoic Week is the free online course which we offer each year. The course contains useful resources for participants and discussion forums, in which participants from all over the world can discuss their experiences and insights as they work through the exercises and readings. We will open enrollment for the online class a few weeks before Stoic Week kicks off, and we will post the link to the course here once enrollment begins (you’ll also see posts in the Modern Stoicism social media as well).

Each year we have offered the online course has seen thousands of new students enroll in the Stoic Week course. Most people who take the course once repeat the course year after year. There are always some new materials from the previous year, but even better, working through the course (in my experience) offers a great opportunity for a weeklong Stoic “tuneup”.

All over the world, groups, organizations, and institutions plan and put on a number of Stoic Week events. We do our best to publicize all of them as Stoic Week approaches, so if you know of one, or plan to organize and host one, make sure to get that information to us, and we will add it to the master list and the upcoming posts. If you’re not sure whether there is a Stoic group or organization in your area, you might check the International Stoic Fellowship to see if there’s a local Stoa near you.

Stoicon-X Events

Stoicon-X events are sort of like TED-X events – smaller local events organized to bring engagement, conversation, and discussion of Stoicism to a number of other communities around the world. They have been held so far on five continents, and more and more of them get added each year!

Here is the schedule for the eight Stoicon-X events this year:

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Sunday, September 22 – Stoicon-X New England (organized by Pete Fagella and Mac Deshaies)
  • Sunday, October 6 (directly following Stoicon) – Stoicon-X Athens (organized by Donald Robertson and Piotr Stankiewicz )
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)


This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last scheduled event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.


This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free (with a $5 suggested donation). For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X New England

This event will be hosted in Newtown, Massachusetts, and runs from 12 PM to 6 PM, followed by a potluck dinner from 6 PM to 8 PM. It is scheduled to include presentations, music, games, lectures, games, social time, practical exercises, and short lightning talks. Snacks will be provided. Tickets are $15.00 for this event. Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Athens

This event will be hosted at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and follows the main Stoicon conference held the day before it. It runs from 9 AM to 1:30 PM. Speakers for this event include Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, and Donald Robertson. Peter Stankiewicz will be organizing the short “lightning round” talks. Tickets for the event are  €42.89 (with fees) Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.


This event will be hosted at the Фаланстер (Falanster) bookstore bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.


This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury, and runs from 10:30 AM to 5 PM. The event involves talks in the morning followed by smaller group workshops in the afternoon.  Tickets for the event cost £16.22 (with fees, and include refreshments and lunch.  Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.


This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library. Featured speakers include Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, and Daniel Collette. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks and a workshop by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler. This is a free event, but due to the space (65 participants maximum), participants must have a ticket. Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.


At this point, details for this event remain TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library in the San Francisco area. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The annual Stoicon conference is one of the main events organized by Modern Stoicism. Attendance in recent years has been between 300-400 (depending on the venue), and it provides an excellent opportunity not only to hear excellent talks by experts on Stoicism, but also to participate in workshops, and to get to meet, greet, and converse with others interested in Stoicism.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Stoicism Comes Home“, and it will be taking place in Cotsen Hall, at the American School of Archeology at Athens. The conference date is Saturday 5th October 2019.

The following speakers are lined up for a day of talks and workshops:

  • Donald Robertson (host), author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
  • Alkistis Agio (host), author of The Stoic CEO
  • Jonas Salzgeber, author of The Little Book of Stoicism
  • Thomas Jarrett LTC, creator of Warrior Resilience Training
  • John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of Stoicism and The Art of Living
  • Matt Sharpe, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University
  • Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, author of How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
  • Christina Kourfali, author of Live like the Stoics
  • Peter Limberg, organizer of Stoicism Toronto
  • Christopher Gill, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism
  • Gabriele Galluzzo, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter
  • David Fideler, author of Restoring the Soul of the World and The Pythagorean Sourcebook (ed.)
  • Piotr Stankievicz, Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, author of Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity
  • Katerina Ierodiakonou, Katerina Ierodiakonou (Greece), Professor at the University of Athens and at the University of Geneva, editor of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy, etc

Tickets and more information on the main Stoicon conference can be found on the Eventbrite page.

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler

Several months back, I wrote a post derived partly from experiences as a middle-aged man going to the gym, and partly by reflections on Stoic philosophy and practice. Those reflections set out some of what Stoicism contributes to understanding the things that come up in the course of regular physical exercise. They also derive from my own application of – and mulling over – Stoicism as I’m in the course of my tri-weekly grind.

I had intended to write a set of follow-up pieces going further into this topic a bit sooner, but as many of you readers can relate, there are only so many hours to each day, and seemingly innumerable demands continuously eating up those blocks of time – usually more than they have been allotted. Not wanting to allow too many weeks and then months to slip by before authoring at least one sequel post, I set aside some time to add another three of those reflections here.

Making and Maintaining Time For Exercise

A commitment to exercise regularly is very easy to make. People do it all the time, especially as a New Years resolution, or after a doctor’s visit during which one’s physician stresses the need to lose weight, strengthen muscles, help one’s bones or joints, increase flexibility, or better one’s cardio-vascular system. Health clubs and gyms typically see a boom in membership in January, and many people who sign up use the facilities only a few times. Others don’t go at all. Some don’t cancel their memberships, but don’t use them either.

There are, of course, all sorts of alternatives to joining a gym. One can take a class, exercise on one’s own, or even get involved in pick-up games at community centers. There are meetups specifically for those who want to exercise in various ways, including just taking walks. Many workplaces have programs intended to get people moving and more active (in the American context, I write from, these are often tied to the health insurance offered by the company – the idea is that healthier employees result in lower insurance payouts). One can also just exercise on one’s own outside or in one’s own place – that was my preferred way, at earlier points in my life.

It is easy to make a choice to exercise, and even to elevate it to the status of a “commitment”. Following through on that is considerably harder. Physical exercise – at least until one has reached a point where this is no longer the case – is difficult, painful, tiring. It demands that one make a choice, or better put, renew the choice one has made, over and over again. That is what a commitment that one sticks with really looks like – a whole sequence of similar choices, maintaining at the least the direction that one started out in, if not necessarily the initial speed or attitude.

Maintaining commitment to exercise affords and opportunity – and also demands, in whatever degree we have it – the virtue that Stoics identified as courage or bravery (fortitudo in Latin, andreia in Greek). There are multiple modes of courage – what the Stoics called “parts” of that virtue – and some are more centrally involved in sticking with physical exercise one has committed oneself to. Perseverance (tharraleotes), which Arius Didymus tells us the Stoics defined as “knowledge ready to persist in what has been correctly decided”, and Industriousness (philoponia), which is “knowledge able to accomplish what is proposed, without being prevented by the toil” (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 5b2) are particularly relevant.

In working through just one of the fourteen weight-machine exercises that comprise my circuit workout, there are ample opportunities to choose not to follow through each time I go to the gym. And correspondingly, in order to keep the commitment to exercising my body fully, choices have to be made over and over again. It’s easy at the start of the first set. Depending on how I’m feeling and how much weight I’m using, it might be a good bit tougher near the end of the first set of repetitions. By the third set, if I’m using the right amount of weight, and not taking overly-long breaks between sets, the repetitions have become much more demanding. Each one towards the end requires an effort to push through pain and fatigue.

Sometimes I find myself tempted to round the number down. I notice my thoughts suggesting that it would be fine for me to do ten reps instead of twelve on the last set. Nobody else would know, since I’m on my own – fortunately, as an overweight near-50 year old, I enjoy near invisibility at the gym – and I’m not accountable to anyone else. Those thoughts suggest that since I’ve already done two whole sets, it would be all right to back off a bit on the final set. They arise less often than when I first resumed lifting a year and a half ago, but I still have to decide to push through to the end. In one sense, that’s bad, but in another – as I’ll discuss below – it’s not.

Choices and commitments not only have to be made at the gym. Before that, one has to actually make the time for exercise, and that requires choices and commitments as well. Busyness, fatigue, and occasional illness are the main factors that renders those difficult for me. For others, it might be a sort of laziness. Or it could be disorganization and distraction. Some may experience reluctance stemming from worries about others judging them on the basis of their present bodies. All of these challenges can be analyzed from the perspective of Stoic philosophy, revealing that they involve varieties of desires and fears, as well as associated assumptions, judgements, and typically developed habits.

As packed as my work schedule is between teaching classes, meeting with clients, engaging in consulting work, shooting videos and creating other content, varied duties with the Modern Stoicism organization and the Stoic Fellowship, among other things, I would sometimes find myself moving my scheduled workout around on my Google calendar to later times or to the next day. As work tasks took longer than planned, and time ran out, I inevitably skipped workouts. With old pets who occasionally require considerable care, children who visit from time to time, and a wife I chose a life with, I also prioritized family time over workout time. Over the five weeks of my kids’ summer visitation, in order to maximize our time together, I cut back considerably on both work and on workouts.

From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other. These valuations or prioritizations have both cognitive and affective dimensions. They reflect what we do – and have done – with what he calls our rational faculty and our faculty of choice (prohairesis, also sometimes translated as “moral purpose”).

There’s a bit of good news and bad news involved in that. The bad news is that since what we choose and do – as with anyone else – flows naturally from the established structures of thought and volition, largely determined by established habits and assumptions, unless we choose to use those two faculties to examine and modify themselves, we will go on along those same lines. Skipping scheduled workouts will keep on happening, as other things assume higher priority when push comes to shove.

The good news, of course, is that we can willingly choose to rethink how we value and prioritize. We can take cognizance of and modify our habits. In the case of physical exercise, we can remind ourselves of its value and necessity. If we want to take care of the bodies we have been given – which is the rational and practically wise thing to do – then we do have to make time for regular exercise. And that means then that once we have made that time, we have to follow through and maintain that time by not allowing other matters to keep us from using it in the way and manner we decided.

Returning To An Abandoned Routine

Interesting and illuminating analogies can be drawn between physical conditioning, which has some value, and the training of the soul, which from a Stoic perspective possesses a much greater value. In order for any lasting changes to be made, a person must deliberately and repeatedly engage in exercises, choosing over and over again to build and develop new capacities. Those processes of self-improvement, of building what is good and strong in us, and rooting out what is bad and weak, work best when they are continuous, but that is rarely the way things work out.

When it comes to regular exercise not only might one end up breaking one’s scheduled pattern, failing to make or maintain the needed time, abandoning one’s routine for other matters valued more highly. Illness or fatigue can also create obstacles. In fact, those can present hindrances even more for working out than they do for daily reading and study of Stoic texts, or regularly engaging in Stoic exercises. It can be difficult to maintain mental focus when sick or overtired, which may make a session of reading or practical exercise less effective. But it can prove harmful to the body to exercise while ill or sleep-deprived.

One of the adages I inevitably tell my students when I teach Ethics classes or material, is that studying practical philosophy isn’t just supposed to provide us with the guidelines for making the right decisions every time. It is also there to help us, after we’ve made the wrong ones, to figure out just how much we’ve messed up, and what we can do to get ourselves back on track. Stoic ethics is no exception in this respect. When you read through the works we possess by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, you will find many passages dealing precisely with that general issue, often focused on particular lapses, mistakes, and deviations.

If getting one’s body back into shape – or perhaps for some, getting it into proper condition for the first time – is something that one decided to be valuable, and still thinks it to be valuable, but one hasn’t managed to stick with regular exercise, then as with any other matter where one notices a contradiction or conflict between the things one thinks, says, values, chooses, and does, then some self-examination is called for. Simply making excuses for why one neglected exercise, or pretending one didn’t have a lapse, or wishfully thinking to oneself that one is going to simply pick right back up and get right back into exercise – these aren’t responses that are likely to be effective.

But once a person acquires some understanding of why what they seem to have resolved to do doesn’t actually happen – when they are the person who gets to determine it – then using that insight, they can change what happens going forward. In my own case, realizing that despite the value I seemingly set upon bodily health – and my realization that regular exercise is a necessary means to that health – I wasn’t getting to the gym regularly enough prompted me to take a look at my habits, assumptions, emotions, and choices involving work.

I’m still practically speaking a workaholic, but by engaging in self-examination and thinking matters through, I was able to break the habit of allowing work obligations to displace scheduled workouts from my calendar, and thereby my day. I saw the larger pattern comprised of many small “just this time” incidents, and then was able to gradually establish a new pattern. Deliberately reminding myself of my realization and resolve that, if I want this body to serve me well past middle age (fate willing of course), I had to keep those workout appointments I’d made by hitting the gym – each occasion that I would have allowed work to spill over into my workout times – that allowed me to get back on track.

A nasty flu bug hit here in the Midwest earlier this year – one that took weeks for most people to get over – and that put my workouts on hold as well. Skipping workouts due to illness is different than not persevering in making time, because as noted above, it may indeed be prudent not to exercise while ill. But what is the same in both cases for physical exercise – and for Stoic practices more generally – is the need to get oneself back on track when we have temporarily put them on hold.

This is where advice from classical Stoic philosophers can be helpful in providing perspective. Without making excuses for ourselves, we can realize that in our failure to follow through and keep commitments to ourselves to exercise, we are no different than any other person who has made a similar mistake. We can forgive ourselves the lapses without forgetting the need to change what within is led to those lapses. As classic Stoic philosophers point out, instead of getting upset with someone for a moral failing, it is more productive to show a person where they went wrong and then leave it up to them what they decide to do with that information. In the case of ourselves, we are that very person, and feeling guilty or angry with ourselves is less likely to get us back into the gym than allowing ourselves to make a new start.

After an absence from the gym, one really does need to make a new start. You can’t really make up for the workouts you missed by assigning yet more exercise to your body. That past time is gone, and that potential exercise that you might have done exists nowhere but in your imagination. All you do have is the present set of real moments and the indeterminate future stretching out in front of you. This is where the Stoic theme of “dealing with appearances” (phantasiai) assumes its importance. That imagination of where you had hoped to be, if you had stuck with the workouts that you missed – that’s an appearance, and one that you can examine and reject, when you encounter it. The sensations of your body as you resume your exercise, whether you feel strong or weak, doing well with an exercise or struggling with it, the pain and fatigue – all of those are appearances as well. The measures of the weights, the repetitions and sets, the time spent doing cardio or in a class – those quantities are all appearances.

We draw a host of judgements from those appearances, often with emotional correlates, all of which we can examine and even rework from a Stoic perspective. When I have gone back for a workout after missing more than a week, I have learned to prime myself to find out in the interaction between my body and the weights machines, what my current capacities really are and to carry out my workout in accordance with those. I do the same with the cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, rowing, etc.). Invariably, I discover I have lost some ground, which makes good sense, since that’s the way bodies work. If you don’t exercise muscles, they get weaker. If you don’t do cardio of some sort, your endurance lessens. Trying to do the workout that you think you ought to be able to do, ignoring the time spent not exercising – or even trying to compensate for it – is making a bad or unreasonable use of all of those appearances.

A better use is to start up again where you find yourself. So you have to do less weight on all or most of the exercises in a weights circuit. Is that something bad for you – or something bad about you? Not at all. When I’ve been too invested in those numbers, and feeling bad about not being able to lift as much as before, I’ve found it useful to remember one of Epictetus’ short analyses of mistaken inferences.

“I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore I am superior to you”. The following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”. But you are neither property nor elocution

Enchiridion, ch. 44

The context would suggest that this reminder applies to cases where we are likely to mistakenly assume our own superiority over other people, or where we need to deal with other people’s assertion of superiority over ourselves or yet others. But it can equally apply to our own assessment of ourselves. If a month earlier, I could easily lift ten pounds more weight on a pulldown machine, and now find myself struggling to get through my three sets with the reduced weight, that doesn’t mean that I have become less of a person. It does mean that I can’t exercise with as much weight. How much weight one can use and the moral status of oneself as a person are two totally different things. If I do want to be able to lift more weight, then I need to exercise. If I want to become a better person, well there are Stoic exercises and insights for that as well!

Some Final Thoughts Keeping The Body In Perspective

Applying Epictetus’ passage along those lines, distinguishing one’s physical capacity from one’s moral condition and development, might then raise a question about the body and exercise from a Stoic perspective that I discussed in the previous post in this series. Strictly speaking, the body and its attributes – like health, strength, or endurance – is an indifferent. We are no more our bodies, their appearances, or their capacity for exercise than we are our wealth or our ability to speak well, right? Epictetus goes so far at one point to say that what a person really consists in, is prohairesis. So why place such a focus on bodily exercise as something important from a Stoic perspective?

I’ll devote additional discussion to this entirely legitimate question in a later post in this series. For now, to bring this to a close, I’ll just point out two things worth mulling over.

One of them is the frequency of Stoics drawing analogies between physical exercise, condition, and even the use of the body, on the one hand, and the understanding, development, and use of what is more at the core of who we are. This is what the Stoics called the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon, which, arguably, turns out to be the same as the rational faculty and the faculty of choice, at least in Epictetus). Bodies don’t start out automatically in good condition, and require the right kinds of exercise in order to improve in health, strength and other attributes. And this goes even more for our souls, which require considerably more attentiveness and work in order for us to more fully realize the potentials of our rational nature.

One of those analogies that I find particularly helpful, as I try to stick with incorporating and continuing bodily exercise comes from Epictetus:

How long will you wait to think yourself worthy of the best things?. . . You have received the philosophical principles which you ought to accept, and you have accepted them. You are no longer a child, but a full-grown adult. If you are now neglectful and easy-going, and always making one delay after another. . . . then without realizing it you will make no progress . . . . Make up your mind, therefore, before it is too late, that the fitting thing for you to do is to live as a mature person who is making progress. . . .[R]emember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is to be lost or to be saved.

Enchiridion, ch. 51

We can apply this advice that emphasizes the importance of each choice at each present moment just as readily to physical exercise as we can to applying Stoic philosophy and practices. Each repetition we force our body’s muscles to carry out (particularly the difficult ones at the end!), each minute one keeps pumping away -sweat-soaked and fatigued – on the elliptical is that single action. And whatever bodily exercise one does not only can be, but calls to be incorporated in a broader Stoic perspective.

One of Seneca’s discussions casts light on this. In a letter presenting Stoic arguments about the equality of virtue (an interesting topic, which I’ll examine more fully in another post), he looks at a contrast some would make between the matters in which virtue is exercised:

“What then,” you say; “is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?” None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. In the one case, there is a natural relaxation and loosening of the soul; in the other there is an unnatural pain. Hence these circumstances, between which a great distinction can be drawn, belong to the category of indifferent things, but the virtue shown in each case is equal.  Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal.

Letter 66

To be sure, the examples he discusses in that letter (and the one following) are more extreme than just making through one’s workout at the gym – include bravely enduring torture, showing fortitude in illness, or dealing with exile – but the same logic applies to exercise. It offers us the opportunity to develop and deploy the virtues in engaging with goods that “manifest only in adversity”. Seneca even clarifies this matter in relation to the Stoic conception of what is “in accordance with nature”.

The two kinds of goods which are of a higher order are different; the primary are according to nature, – such as deriving joy from the dutiful behaviour of one’s children and from the well-being of one’s country. The secondary are contrary to nature, – such as fortitude in resisting torture or in enduring thirst when illness makes the vitals feverish. “What then,” you say; “can anything that is contrary to nature be a good?” Of course not; but that in which this good takes its rise is sometimes contrary to nature. For being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses. To explain my thought briefly, the material with which a good is concerned is sometimes contrary to nature, but a good itself never is contrary, since no good is without reason, and reason is in accordance with nature.

Letter 66

I’ll leave off here with a brief interpretative suggestion. In one sense, physical exercise of the sort that one typically does at a gym – deliberately pushing oneself to limits of strength, endurance, flexibility, or other bodily qualities – are indeed unnatural. The pain or fatigue one endures is hopefully not anywhere near as intense as being tortured on a rack, of course, and the circumstances are very different, since one chooses to work out. In another sense, physical exercise is something in accordance with nature, not only because it enables us to develop our bodily capacities and to maintain our bodies in a state of health, but also because when conducted well, the “use” or “dealing with” the indifferents that our bodies are can provide a locus for exercising the virtues.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

As a quick introduction, my name is Frank Ó’hÁinle and I am a twenty-one-year-old Irish law student. Throughout the course of this piece I would just like to share my own personal experience of Stoicism with you all, as well as examining the application of this ancient Greek philosophy to the Irish generally in terms of their predisposition towards melancholy and despondency.

In particular the opening paragraphs will focus upon the indomitable Irish spirit in terms of their outlook towards the uncontrollable circumstances that were imposed upon them throughout history, with the latter paragraphs focusing on the melancholic aspect of the Irish psyche particularly a predisposition towards focusing on the negative experiences which happen to us all. Hopefully you enjoy my piece and it sparks an interest in the application of Stoic philosophy to your own lives.

I “discovered” Stoicism at the age of nineteen following my first year of my undergraduate degree. The Summer after first year is what I would consider up until this point to be the nadir of my fortunes, for a multitude of reasons. Several things had not gone my way and despite considering myself to be quite a tough individual, I had reached a point where I was feeling down and out. I struggled to come to grips with this despondency and subsequently was unable to push through this relative low point in my life. I do not find a need to discuss the individual concerns as you could substitute them for any other multitude of factors and still find Stoicism applicable. A primary practice of Stoicism is to avoid overly focusing on the circumstances one finds themselves in if they are outside of their control, as such an in-depth discussion of these prior issues of mine may well prove to be counterproductive.

As per Marcus Aurelius writing in the Meditations:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

An avid fan of history, with Ancient Rome being a particular area of interest for me, I returned to the last good emperor Marcus Aurelius and was shocked to find that he had produced an absolute masterpiece in the quiet moments of his life. In between running the known world, Marcus had found the time to express in harrowing heart wrenching detail his own struggles and how he had found the strength within himself not only to persevere, but also to make the world he had found himself in a better place in the process.

Delving into this work I found answers to questions I had never dared to ask and a way in which I could rebuild myself into the man I had once thought I was but had now discovered that I could not have been further from becoming. Taking this full Summer to rebuild and reorient myself with who I wanted to be, and casting away all that, had held me back in the past. This was by no means easy but taking each day as it came I found myself becoming a Stoic, I was now able to accept the locus of control along with the concepts of Amor Fati and Memento Mori, these concepts at this point have been written about at length by far more skilled authors than myself, so I will not fill out my piece with unnecessary descriptions of them.

As well as Roman history, I am also a devout follower of the wonderful trials and tribulations that make up my own heritage as an Irish man. Having read of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato and many other Stoics in the past I began to draw comparisons between these great men of antiquity and their teachings, with those of a more Gaelic origin. Taking for example the general unwillingness of the Irish to ever break and accept the culture of the English, despite seven centuries of subjugation, I could witness the Stoic’s unwillingness to allow external factors beyond their control to overly affect them.

An Górta mór or “the Famine” as it is referred to in most textbooks, involved the death of one million Irish people by means of starvation, malnourishment, cold and illness, while one million more of them were forced to emigrate in order to survive. In a span of some four years, one quarter of the population was now gone from the island never to return.

During this time of suffering and loss, the British authorities set up soup kitchens where, if an Irishman renounced their Catholic faith (along with much of their identity) and took on the Protestant faith (with the equivalent English identity), then they would be fed. Yet the Irish identity persisted regardless, as many refused instead accepting their circumstances in the way of Amor Fati.

Rather than looking for an easy escape from their struggles which would necessitate an immense compromise of their ideals and very conception of who they are, the Gaels instead persisted embracing what had come their way and ensuring their very cultural identity would survive. This is most reflected in the writings of Epictetus who himself would have to learn to embrace the life of a slave and the trials and tribulations that came with it throughout his life, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Yet it is in the fate of Joseph Plunkett that I see the greatest of Irish Stoics. Suffering with tuberculosis, Joseph was effectively given a terminal diagnosis. Yet unknown to his physician who had given this diagnosis, Plunkett was a part of a revolutionary bid – to win Ireland’s independence or to give their lives in the attempt. With the Rising set to occur on Easter of the year 1916, Joseph Plunkett left his sickbed along with the love of his life and their unborn child, knowing full well he would not return.

During the events of Easter week Plunkett contributed in his own way, despite his illness making an active combat role impossible he aided in the organisation and planning of the Rising, right up until his illness left him forced to spend the dying days of the revolution bedridden. His very presence and fortitude in ensuring he did what was required of him, inspired the men to continue to resist despite the overwhelming odds facing them. With the fires mounting in Dublin the decision to surrender was taken and at the mercy of the British authorities it was decided to make an example of the leaders of this insurrection, among them Joseph Plunkett.

Following on from this, the leaders of the Rising were executed daily each meeting their fate unwilling to bend to what they viewed as tyranny. Saddest among these deaths were those of James Connolly and the aforementioned Plunkett. Connolly, a socialist born in Scotland to Irish parents and a former British soldier, saw what the scourge of Empire was forcing upon the Irish people and sought to sever the link between the two countries regardless of what the personal cost may be.  Mortally injured during the Rising having taken on the primary command of the Irish armed forces, Connolly would have died without intervention in the coming days, yet he was executed by firing squad while tied to a chair.

Plunkett’s demise has however, since been immortalised in the poignancy of the song Grace. Before it came time to face down the firing squad, Joseph Mary Plunkett was allowed to marry the love of his life Grace Gifford in order to legitimize their unborn child. With a Stoic calm in the mould of Seneca meeting his demise in front of the Roman centurion sent to ensure his death, Plunkett bade his newlywed wife farewell mere moments before he did the same to his life.

Like the Stoics, Plunkett attached no great significance to his death. He had lived his life as well as he could and contributed to something greater than himself as his memory and that of his compatriots would allow the spark of Irish freedom to ignite and six years later attain its ultimate goal, a free and independent state. Plunkett and Connolly, like many Irish rebels before them, understood that living well was the key determining factor to dying well. As is reflected in the words of Seneca the Younger, “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

So far, my article has focused upon one aspect of the Irish psyche, that of its courage and ability to endure, yet its other hemisphere betrays these Stoic values to a degree. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his description of the Irish, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Another core aspect of the Irish people generally, which has been noticed not only by those visiting our shores but by the more introspective among us, is that we tend towards feelings of melancholy and despondency. Such an aspect of our nationwide consciousness draws a stark contrast to the above element of endurance and also much of what it means to be a Stoic. This is further evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers and poets, with the likes of William Butler Yeats devoting much time to elaboration upon the topic. This leaves the Gaels in a rather odd position of naturally displaying the key determining factor of the ancient philosophy, while on the other hand displaying the emotional element which it is designed to overcome.

I have noticed this even in myself, despite my time studying and learning from the Stoics while also applying their teachings, I find unexpected and severe feelings of sadness overcoming me at the strangest of times. In response I tend towards sad music and short moments of introversion, despite my overtly extroverted personality. I have noticed this behaviour in friends and family members also.

One need only turn on a broadcast of the news for the day and despite there being twenty-six positive headlines, one of my family or friends will focus upon the one negative part of the broadcast. As further evidence of this, a recent study in Ireland has revealed that in parts of the country, radio listeners spike when lists of the deceased are read out over the air. Of course, it must be noted that this is a generalisation, and not all of us maintain this inner sadness and inability to avoid focusing upon the negative aspects of our lives, yet as of the present it remains a pervading element of our society. One which has shown a degree of prevalence in the cultural expressions of the Irish people, whether it be through means of music or that of our artists and storytellers, much of it speaks to that darker element of our way of thinking.

To return to the G.K. Chesterton quote, it would seem that when focused upon a goal and in the middle of that battle, the ordinary Irish person throughout our history has been able to maintain a Stoic resilience and ability not only to endure but to thrive despite everything which has attempted to break them. Yet when devoid of this purpose, we tend towards this form of melancholy which seems singularly unique to the Gaels. In a modern world, however, such overarching goals have now been replaced by a culture of individuality. As such, this willingness to endure and fight for what it is we held to be right has been overcome by the more negative half of our national identity. I found myself falling into this trap, aged nineteen, and was fortunate enough that my love of the past led me towards a mentor of Aurelius’ ilk, yet not all of us are as fortunate despite Stoicism’s resurgence.

Having done much research into the topic of the Irish psyche and history, I would highlight it as a case study of an area in which the benefits of Stoicism can be seen by all. In my own life I have been able to remove an obsession upon controlling my life and its ultimate course, whether I will be wealthy or married with children in the coming years is beyond my control along with an innumerable myriad of other possibilities. My happiness is no longer contingent upon such uncontrollable external factors, but rather upon who it is I decide to be day by day and the impact I have on those around me.

In accepting this I have found strength where once there was doubt and uncertainty, while I came to find my way of living a better life through Stoicism at a relatively young age, I would like all of you to note that it is never too late to change your outlook on life and in doing so to become the best version of yourself possible. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, yet as was evidenced above in embracing our better selves we not only improve our own lives but also those of the ones around us whether wittingly or not.

My own story provides an example of this as I still have to consciously work on myself day by day in order to avoid returning to the pitfalls which hampered me pre-Stoicism. Whether it is my nightly ritual of finding three things which I can be thankful for throughout my day and three things which although they were initially perceived as negative experiences in that same day can be looked at as blessings in disguise, if I allow my perception of them to be altered.

There are countless other small exercises which I practice throughout my regular day and I would hope to write a further article describing in greater detail how I practice Stoicism on a daily basis in order to aim for personal mastery. Yet as my friends and family will attest, I have become a better more capable friend, son, nephew etc., whose impact upon those around has been a positive one for having embraced the life of a Stoic and all that such a way of being pertains to.

While we can’t all be revolutionary heroes who usher in a new era for an entire people, we can contribute in ways which help to improve a universal whole the consequences of which through the invariable ripple effect can never truly be calculated. Embrace what is good in who you are and work to improve that which holds you back, whether it be a melancholy ingrained in you from a young age or some other unhealthy behaviour or habit which has thus far held you back. In particular, Epictetus elaborates best upon such an outlook on life, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” As a result, you never know you may end up changing the world in the process and leaving it a better place for you having come through this way.

Frank Ó’hÁinle is a final year law and history student, currently studying in the University of Limerick. He is an aspiring author, who attempts to achieve some degree of balance between the practice of Stoicism in his every day life, writing, work as a bartender and at some stage perhaps his actual undergraduate degree. You can contact him here

Imperfection and the Stoic by John Kluempers

The researcher and author Brené Brown does not call herself a Stoic or describe herself as being stoic. Nevertheless, when I read her book, I find parallels on how she relates to her work on courage, shame, and imperfection in leading a good life, and how the stoic seeks eudaimonia, or a good life.

If you don’t know Brené Brown, I suggest you watch her TED talk (here) on vulnerability, which still belongs to one of the most viewed talks on the conference platform. On her own website, Brown calls herself a research professor of the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington-Brené Brown Endowed Chair and has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. One of her early books is The Gifts of Imperfection.

In it, she takes the reader through a journey on how we can get past the negative feelings that appear when we compare ourselves to others—and possibly worse, comparing ourselves to the expectations of society. On the journey, Brown leaves 10 so-called guideposts. Each one of the guideposts is a gremlin that prevents each one of us from living what she calls Wholeheartedly (her capital ‘W’). Stoics would use the term eudaimonically. I find that each one of the 10 guideposts has a bit of Stoic philosophy. Here are the guideposts:

  1. Letting Go of What People Think: Authenticity
  2. Letting Go of Perfectionism: Self-compassion
  3. Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness: Resilient Spirit
  4. Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark: Gratitude and Joy
  5. Letting Go of the Need of Certainty: Intuition and Trusting Faith
  6. Letting Go of Comparison: Creativity
  7. Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth
  8. Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle: Cultivating Calm and Stillness
  9. Letting Go of Self-doubt and “Supposed To”: Meaningful Work
  10. Letting Go of Cool and “Always in Control”: Laughter, Song, and Dance

I will now take you guidepost by guidepost to find stoic thoughts and philosophy that are buried in the meaningful writing of Brené Brown. By no means am I trying to one-up her work. Our modern lives are more hectic, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever (doesn’t every generation say that?) and everyone is seeking new ways to manage and even rule over the stress and strain. I look to make the connection between what she has so magnificently discovered and described for more than a decade and how stoics (and even non-stoics) could use it to lead better, healthier, and more joyful lives. Or eudaimonic lives in the parlance of stoicism.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think.

Brené Brown’s first guidepost demands from us to be truer to ourselves. Not to hold back from opening up to those who are closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, children, good friends. When we reveal ourselves at the right moments, we will find joy and satisfaction.

She uses the term authenticity and describes it as a quality that we are either born with or not, but as something that we must practice, “a conscious choice of how we want to live” (p. 49). Brown continues that we are authentic on some days and not on others. Importantly, we act authentic in front of some people and less so in front of others. Based on her research, she came up with the following definition:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” In more detail, she sketches being authentic as being courageous enough to be imperfect, recognizing that all struggle with the vulnerability of being authentic (and hence, imperfect), and connecting with others best when we believe that we are enough

p. 50

When we are being our true selves, those who know us might be confused, she writes. Questions like, “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” or “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” Brown stresses that this act of authenticity is audacious—and might meet with rejection by people close to us. In order to lead a Wholehearted life, we meet with resistance. People will find it strange, unusual, even scary and will want us to return to the way we were before. Do we want this?

The price of giving too much value to those opinions, and after all, that is what they are, can make us experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief (p. 51). We have no control over what others think about us and how they would like us to be. We should be on our guard. Otherwise, we will go back to being miserable. This desire to be accepted by others is very much a part of human nature. But is it what we really want?

These questions and concerns about being authentic very much coincide with the Stoic school of philosophy. Giving people control over how we should be and act leads primarily to unhappiness. With this first guidepost as a starting point, I would like to show what Stoicism can do for you. For those not already familiar with Stoicism, I will over the course of this article introduce important pillars of thought from the school.

In Stoicism, there are a few primary maxims that we learn early. One is the dichotomy of control. The Stoic teacher Epictetus (or Arrian, one of his students who recorded Epictetus’ lectures) felt this to be a pillar of Stoicism that both his Discourses and Enchridion open with it. “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” Connecting this to Brown’s first guidepost, she recognizes something that any modern Stoic learns early: We do not have control over what others think of us.

The philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states it slightly differently in his Meditations:

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgment at any moment

Meditations 8.47

2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.

The prokopton, or practicing Stoic, is necessarily imperfect. The sage is a model to live up to. For the Stoics, Socrates fits the bill of being a sage. Quite possibly the Sage. He was a man who lived virtuously. The virtuous person perfectly incorporates the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For Socrates and the Stoics these virtues came first and foremost in leading a good life because when practiced in the best way possible, we will fulfil all four. Socrates (and historical figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ and I’m sure others from religions I’m less familiar with) did just this. With his persistent questioning, he wanted to lead others to recognize their imperfections—and according to Plato’s testimony, Socrates even would discover his own shortcomings.

Why should we find our deficits?

Brown writes that “[p]erfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance” (p. 56). But at what cost does it come if we seek the praise and liking of those around us—and even of those we don’t know? When “What will they think?” drives our actions and behaviors. The Stoics warn exactly against this and the dichotomy of control exists to remind us of this. If we act in virtuous ways, then the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others are unimportant because in virtue, we are doing that which is only good.

The difficult part is that we will constantly face situations where we make difficult decisions, often at the spur of the moment. Perfection is not possible, only a guidepost, using Brown’s terminology, that can lead us to make the best possible decision. A Stoic sage will be able to practice all four virtues listed above. All at the same time. We honestly can’t do that but we seek to practice all four as often as possible and in as many cases as possible so that our lives are eudaimonic.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness.

One objection people frequently throw at Stoicism is being exactly that: stoic. A cold-hearted, emotionless machine. You might notice the small difference here. The first time it’s capitalized and the second time not. Stoicism does not demand or even desire people to suppress their emotions, the so-called stiff upper lip. This is being stoic with a small ‘s’. Emotions are a part of the human experience. There are good emotions with happiness and joy at the forefront. There are also bad emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. It is interesting that the list of perceived bad emotions is much greater.

It has been shown that humans magnify bad things and events while we tend to underplay the celebratory ones. After all, for much of human existence on Earth, dangers such as predators, illness, drought, etc. have far outweighed the parties, like killing a large animal to secure the existence of family. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the possibility of a sudden death was by no means minimal even if the Romans did much to lower mortality rates in the regions they conquered and ruled, as seen here.

We react to negative and stressful situations in many ways, but they are almost all learned behaviors. Brown brings up the point that we fall into all kinds of addictive behavior when confronted with challenging emotions. There are the usual suspects: alcohol and drugs. But there are many more: shopping, eating, smoking, gambling, gossiping, working, just to name a few. Addictive behavior stems from stress and unease about something. It temporarily numbs the dark, as Brown puts it. It is only temporary, however.

The Stoic virtue of temperance, or moderation, reminds us to avoid excess. Not only should we avoid excessive pleasure, we should also temper the negative emotions and keep in mind that the effects of what we are judging to be bad will not last long. This is a core principle of Stoicism in dealing with difficult situations. Cognitive distancing, which is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, is one such way. Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius espoused it by saying: “It is not events that upset us but our judgments about events” (Enchiridion, 5). We should keep this in mind so that when confronted with painful, stressful or other challenging situations, we don’t revert to automatic mechanisms and habits that do nothing to ease the discomfort and more likely exacerbate it.

4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark.

Brené Brown brings a very important lesson to the table at this guidepost. In order to be joyful, we must be thankful FIRST. In her interviews with people who were joyful, she discovered three powerful patterns, as she described them (pp. 77-8):

  • People who described themselves as leading joyful lives, without exception, actively practiced gratitude. And they attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practices.
  • The persons described both joy and gratitude as spiritual practices. These practices inextricably were linked to the belief of human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy. Happiness was attributable to circumstances [outside of their control] and joy was a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.

The Stoics recognized this in similar ways. Epictetus portrayed it with his broken jug anecdote.

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Handbook, 3

When I read this the first time, I thought to myself: How can I equate losing a jug with me losing my child or wife? There is a grave discrepancy between the two! If my child were to die today, I believe I would first be in shock. I might become very angry or grieve terribly long. I might drown that sorrow with alcohol as a way to numb the pain or anger.

The reason why we may resort to numbing is that we don’t recognize many things we should be grateful for. When Epictetus speaks of us losing a jug, it can be relatively easy to say, I can handle that. When in the next sentence, he adds that we should react with similar equanimity should our child or wife die before we see them again, that bit is harder to swallow. What point does Epictetus want to make when he juxtaposes earthenware to close family?

What he wants to do is indicate that we should practice more gratitude. We should celebrate every moment that we have with our family, friends, and even, as perverse as it might sound, the possessions we own. To the Stoic, these are all indifferents, and in this case, preferred indifferents. Yes, we can (and should) enjoy them. We can take pleasure in them. But their existence in our lives does not lie directly in our power. Epictetus reminds us that the ephemeral nature of existence is just that, a part of nature.

Even more importantly, we should remind ourselves that in leading a good life, it is up to us to remember to appreciate those preferred indifferents—and give thanks for them on a regular basis. This is what the subjects in Brown’s interviews do consistently. The reward is leading, in her terms, a more joyful life. A mistake many people make, she adds, is waiting for joy to come before expressing gratitude.

The Stoics followed a similar line of thinking. Show gratitude for what you have at the end of each day. Many therapies request patients to take the time, usually at the end of the day, to journal. Epictetus also asks us to review all things we did during the day and grade it mentally. The grading can be as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down (or somewhere in between) or you can give grades or ratings. Did you help a friend out? Pat yourself on the back. Were you quick tempered with a colleague? Remind yourself next time to pause before reacting.

The ancient Roman Stoics kept this in mind with the practice of premeditation malorum, or visualizing the bad. This works in two ways. By foreseeing the bad, we actually decrease our fear of it. Cognitive behavior therapy works on this precept. “What’s the worst that can happen to me when I give a presentation? Might I embarrass myself? And what if I do? People forget about it fairly quickly.”

The other side of the premeditation malorum coin is that we appreciate more what we have and all the bad things that don’t happen to us.

5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty.

The endless amount of information at our disposal in modern times can be seductive. There is practically an answer to every problem, dilemma, crisis under the sun. At least we believe that most of the time. Google and co. will provide us with the best possible response or solution. For some things this is certainly true: a math equation, a trivia question, a history question, etc.

Yet search engines and the Internet can’t answer with any certainty questions about our future, at least not yet. Which job should we accept? Which car should we buy? Which school is best for our children? We pore over the data. We analyze it. We use due diligence. Only to feel even more uncertain. Lots of research (here and here for a small sample) has shown that our gut feelings, hunches, or a sixth sense often lead to good decisions. Science has only in the last two decades or so started examining intuition more closely. And understanding it.

Brené Brown points out that intuitions are an amalgam of mental processes. It is not just a random choice. The brain observes something, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut feeling’ about what we’ve observed and how to proceed—without a long deliberation process. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s distinction between Slow and Fast Thinking is similar.

Stoicism asks its practitioners also to use due diligence. Reason makes humans stand out from all other creatures on Earth. We should use our brains, our cognitive abilities, to analyze and make the best possible decisions under the circumstances. The Roman orator Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoic ideas and philosophy, illustrated the uncertainty that surrounds the outcomes of decisions once they have been made to that of an archer. She chooses a certain target; she lifts the bow and takes aim; she pulls back the string; she releases the arrow. Once the arrow is flying, however, it is no longer in her control where it strikes. A gust of wind may blow it off target. The target (an animal, for example) may move out of the way. Cicero rightly concluded, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired.” “Not desired,” you ask? Yes, because the archer has done all in her power to hit the target but must be ready to accept if the arrow does not hit the mark.

Prepare well, do your homework—then just do it! to quote a sporting apparel company. At some point we have no control and must be ready to accept what fate has in store.

6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.

Brené Brown notes that when we excessively make comparisons—not only to others but also to ourselves, we automatically find ourselves in a situation of insufficiency. We never have enough. We are never good enough.

The Stoics were on to this too. In general, we only see and experience impressions of how others are doing. We see others with better cars, nicer homes, more loving spouses. Yet we don’t know by any means if they are actually better off than we are. Money, reputation, and love are to the Stoics indifferents that can have good and bad qualities. The only chief good that a human can possess is virtue. Socrates drove this point home and the Stoics, too.

Virtue is, as Massimo Pigliucci summarizes in his book How to be a Stoic, the only thing that is valuable under all circumstances. Everything else is an indifferent and can be either good and bad, or in the parlance of Stoicism, preferred or dispreferred. It is fine to accrue wealth, but if in accruing it, a multibillionaire slashes thousands of jobs, then she is hardly acting virtuously. Money is a vice in that case. The same is true for love. If we act “lovingly” to gain acceptance, for example, you are using love as a means to an end. The outcome of such behavior is also uncertain. The person whose acceptance you try to win may spurn your attempts anyway, or he withholds the love that he may have returned because he sees through the veiled attempt.

The Stoic says we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our impressions may mislead or misinform us. Therefore, practice the four virtues: practical wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation on yourself—and only on yourself.

7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth.

 In modern times, productivity is the measuring stick par excellence. At the workplace; on the athletics field or in the gym; at school. We are being measured against standards that demand we always work. In creating those standards, we often had little input, if any at all. They are imposed on us and we impose them on each following generation.

In guidepost 2, we learned that taking time out is necessary. Even more necessary is taking time out to play and rest. Many mammal species play as part of upbringing. We see puppies, lion and bear cubs, dolphin calves, and monkey and ape species playing as part of childhood—and sometimes beyond. Playing is learning to do adult things (hunt, for example) and be social in a family or clan.

For millions and millions of people, working for the sake of work is a status symbol. We must be busy, or at least look like we are busy. Otherwise someone could overtake us. We respond to the price of believing that someone might get to the finish line (which one we should ask) first by working more and sacrificing most often sufficient sleep. Many studies reveal the deep value and necessity of getting enough sleep. In his New York Times bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows in great detail the benefits of a good slumber.

But not only sleep is critical. In this guidepost, Brené Brown refers to studies that show the importance of play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (here is his TED talk on it) Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation to Brené) explains how play actually shapes our brain and helps us become more social creatures.

The Stoics see play also as part of the human experience. The second head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, was a pugilist. Up to young adulthood, Marcus Aurelius, participated in all kinds of sporting activities while being raised. It is necessary to do this, otherwise we may hit a wall sooner or later. Our health may deteriorate, or our social life may suffer. Or both.

8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.

Anxiety is a curse. Disquietude impacts our mental and physical health. The definition of anxiety in simple terms is to worry about the outcome of an upcoming event. We want something, be it a prize, recognition, or compliments. Yet these are outside of our control, as Epictetus reminds us:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What is it that he wants?’ For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that is something beyond his control.

Discourses 2.13

The dichotomy of control shines its light yet again. We will always want to perform well, but the reactions of the audience are beyond our control. We prepare for the situation. We practice. We stay calm—think of the archer! Emotionally-charged situations are inevitable. Reduce anxiety by remaining calm, breathing, and remembering the reactions of the others is beyond your control.

9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed to”.

A Stoic life requires a few simple things from the prokopton. Live virtuously, for virtue is the highest good—and all else is indifferent. In addition, we should follow Nature. We should do all we can to lead a life that will make the world a better place. Lastly, yes, you guessed it, we should remember the dichotomy of control.

In this guidepost, Brené Brown points out something that haunts most anyone who has self-perception (and that means about anybody beyond the age of 7 or 8): expectations. It begins in the family where parents, siblings, and relatives believe we should act a certain way and do certain things. “Boys play sports,” and “Girls should look pretty,” are typical examples heard in families in many homes. Some of those expectations have changed in families in the last few decades, but family members aren’t the only ones with expectations. Society and culture also drive this (and many similar ones) message home. At times very overtly, but usually those whispers are spoken in more subtle tones.

Eventually, these external expectations become internalized. We tell ourselves stories of what is appropriate, what is possible, what is taboo. Such stories prevent us from pursuing the life that would have true meaning for ourselves: starting a job or career we always wanted to do, pursue a hobby, volunteer. Brené Brown discovered a few things that happen when we pursue meaningful work. The work or activity may face scrutiny. The opinions of others, even insults, lie outside of our control. The decision to pursue an alternative job may not be greeted with enthusiastic support, but the price of not doing so will be disquietude and dissatisfaction. Brown recommends acknowledging those so-called “gremlins” to remove the mystique and power of the fear they create. The Stoics would concur fully with this approach because it will help reduce or eliminate the self-doubts and the “supposed to’s” coming from within and without. When this happens, we will lead more flourishing lives.

10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”.

The Stoics understand that humans naturally seek pleasure. This is fine and good because it is an indifferent, preferably a preferred one. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of virtue. This means that we enjoy fun, games, sports, and arts in healthy doses. Indeed, Seneca promotes such behavior for more reserved personalities.

Games will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives in balance. The more damp and drier natures, also the cold [i.e., detached, aloof, equivocal personalities] are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so, such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness

Seneca, On Anger, 2.20.4

Brown refers to something that is innately human. Laughter, song, and dance have one common thread. “[They] create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone” (Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 118).

We are not alone. We naturally seek social connections. We can pursue positive collective behaviors (which by its nature means not following mob rule mentality, e.g., what is prevalent on the Internet), Brown writes that, “[w]e want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 121). What is described as teenage behavior often continues into adult years. Particularly when our own children are present. They find it embarrassing when we dance at a party or sing karaoke. As much as we love our children, we shouldn’t let that stop us from dancing or singing.

This is even more reason to do it. In the eyes of highly self-conscious teenagers, we should use this as an opportunity to talk about it afterwards, use it as a teaching moment. When we show our vulnerability that leaves the impression on impressionable younger people that it is acceptable to laugh, dance, and sing.

Seneca finds the right words about whether we should be concerned that we embarrass or shame ourselves: Who is not aware that nothing thought to be good or bad looks the same to the sage as it does to everyone else? He pays no mind to what others consider shameful or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd; just as the planets make their way against the wheel of heaven, he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 14.3-4).

The Stoics and Stoicism tell us to ‘follow nature’ for doing so means we act virtuously. Since we are all for the most part not sages that automatically know how to act in every situation, it’s wise to also to look at what might be holding us back. This is why the work of Brené Brown has great value to me. We imperfect human beings will remain so and by tackling how our imperfections are hindering us from leading more fulfilling lives, that takes us one closer to being sages.

John Kluempers works with PhD candidates and college students in Germany. He helps them prepare for their careers when they attend conferences, i.e., hones their presentation skills and gives them advice on networking in academic contexts. Together with a small group of Stoics in western Germany, he’d like to find more Germans who would find the advantages of stoic eudaimonia.

Stoicon-X Events this Fall

The big Stoicon conference is taking place this year in Athens on Saturday, October 5, and it promises to be an excellent opportunity to attend talks and workshops by a number of authors, speakers, and practitioners in the Modern Stoic movement, and to connect up with other people equally interested in Stoic philosophy and practice.

Stoic Week starts the following Monday, October 7 and runs to the following Sunday, October 12. As has been the case every year prior, there will be a number of local Stoic Week events all over the world – and we’ll be listing them here in Stoicism Today (so if you’ve got one planned, make sure you contact me and provide the information)

Those are all great opportunities for learning more about Stoicism and participating in the worldwide modern Stoic community. But there is another kind of conference that you might be interested in as well – STOICON-X conferences. Along lines similar to the big TED and the smaller TED-X events, Stoicon-X conferences offer an opportunity for local Stoic groups to organize events similar to Stoicon itself, but on smaller scale, all over the world.

At this point, it looks like there are seven Stoicon-X events being planned, some of which have more planning, preparation, and scheduling done than others. There will be more information forthcoming in the next two months as we lead up to Stoicon, Stoic Week, and the Stoicon-X events, but here is what we have so far.

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)
  • TBD – Stoicon-X Madrid (organized by Kellys Andreína Rodríguez)


Stoicon-X Toronto

This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last schedule event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.

Stoicon-X New York

This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free. For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X Moscow

This event will be hosted at the Falanster bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X London

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury. The details are still TBD, and will be forthcoming here in Stoicism Today, once they are available. For more information, you can contact the organizer. UPDATE: Tickets now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and at present features Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks. It is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library, and is a free event. More information will be forthcoming in the near future, and will be provided in a mid-week post. For more information, you can email me.

Stoicon-X San Francisco

At this point, most of the details for this event are TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X Madrid

Likewise, details for this event are TBD at this time, but will also be provided here in Stoicism Today as they become available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

So if you’re interested in any of these local events, mark the date on your calendar, and get ready to get your Stoic-on!


Stoicon 2019-Athens: Interviews With the Organizers

Over the last few years, we have held the annual Stoicon conference in London, New York, and Toronto. This year, Stoicon is planned to take place in the city where the philosophy was born – Athens! That’s precisely where the founder, Zeno of Citium, had his fortunate shipwreck, read about Socrates in a bookseller’s stall, studied with Crates the Cynic (among others), and then went on to teach at the Stoa Poikile (the “painted porch”).

If you’re thinking about attending this historic Stoicon – coming up Saturday, October 5 – here’s the event information and the ticket link. There is also a Facebook event for Stoicon 2019. Keep in mind that there is also a Stoicon-X the next day in Athens as well (information here).

As editor of Stoicism Today, I compiled a list of email interview questions for Donald Robertson, Alkistis Agio, and Christopher Gill. Their responses below are intended to give our readers a much fuller conception of what this important annual conference involves, both in general, and specifically this year.

1. Why does Stoicon matter?  Why is it important to have a conference like this?

Donald: There’s no other event like this.  It’s the largest gathering of modern Stoics in the world and therefore has some of the subject’s leading authors and experts in attendance.  It’s a chance to really feel connected with other Stoics, to learn more about the subject, explore different perspectives, and also, in this case, to visit the birthplace of the philosophy.

Alkistis: In my view, Stoicon matters because it is important to bring our community together, to meet each other face to face on a regular basis.It’s not enough to read each other’s books and to comment under each other’s posts; meeting in person allows us to interact on a deeper human level.To feel the warmth and friendliness of each other, as in “phil-adelphia”, brotherly-sisterly love.We are a family and it is the most natural thing in the world to want to be close to one another on a regular basis.Stoicon is a celebration of our way of thinking and way of life, the values we share; Ethos, Arete, Agape…Also, the event may also attract attention of more people to Stoicism that can benefit them too.

Chris: It is a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the world interesting in applying Stoic ideas and insights in their life and to hear talks by experts of various kinds and take part in workshops on aspects of life and current concern that matter greatly.

2. What can people attending Stoicon expect?  What will they get out of participating in it?

Chris: To judge from previous Stoicon events – an atmosphere of great enthusiasm and engagement – talks on real life issues drawing on Stoic philosophical ideas but conveyed in a way that is accessible to all – and workshops, Q &A after talks ,and social time when you can share your views and concerns.

Donald: There are talks and workshops from experts on Stoicism.  We encourage speakers to adopt a practical focus and we try to have something for everyone by inviting speakers from different walks of life, from the military, academia, popular psychology, psychotherapy, teaching spirituality, etc.  There will also be lots of extra events this year because of the special location we’ve chosen.  The city of Athens has a lot to do and see for those interested in Greek philosophy, of course.

Alkistis: Expect to be inspired. Expect to remember this experience for the rest of your life, as one of the best decisions you ever made.

3. What are you particularly looking forward to about Stoicon 2019? Why that in particular?

Alkistis: I am looking forward to making new friends that may last a lifetime. I am looking forward to sharing my insider’s view of Athens and Greece. I am looking forward to sharing about my book, THE STOIC CEO. I am looking forward to learning about Stoicism from other points of view, from some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. I am looking forward to profound dialogues and discussions about things that matter to us.

Chris: Stoicon 2019 is unique in being held in Athens, home of the original Stoic philosophy and other great Greek philosophies, and also a beautiful and inspiring city with history all round you. Some  new speakers from around the world and new topics for workshops. Topics include Stoicism and community, environment, military life, psychotherapy, inner control and attending to yourself and other suggestive themes. 

Donald: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to absorb the atmosphere in Athens.  You can climb up the hill to the Acropolis, look down on the ruins of the agora, the city centre of ancient Athens, and compare that view to Marcus Aurelius’ description, for example, of the view from above.  You can visit the remains of the Theatre of Dionysius where Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds was performed and Socrates, seated among the audience, reputedly stood up so that everyone could see who they were laughing at.  You can visit the Areopagus where we’re told St. Paul addressed gathered Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Lyceum where Aristotle founded his school – however, the Sophists, Socrates, and later even the Stoic Chrysippus also reputedly taught there.  Some people might even want to travel a few hours outside Athens to the ruins of Delphi in the mountains, where according to legend the Pythia pronounced that no man was wiser than Socrates. 

4. What is distinctively new about Stoicon this year?

Alkistis: Stoics from all over the world will come to Greece. 
It’ s a milestone, a historical event. This is unprecedented, it’s moving when you think about it…Imagine walking the same streets, under the same sky, drinking Greek wine and philosophizing as Socrates did…The venue Cotsen Hall, with it’s beautiful gardens and surrounding neoclassical buildings like the Gennadios Libraryrich with history, is probably the most inspiring venue so far for Stoicon.Every Stoic should be there for this celebration!

Donald: The location is obviously much more steeped in history this year.  We’ve also therefore been able to add many extra events such as small tours and additional talks in the city of Athens.  

5. Travel to and from Stoicon often affords people a chance to practice Stoicism. How does Stoicism help people travel well?

Donald: Seneca says that the wise man (or woman) sets off on every journey with the intention “I will travel to Athens”, or wherever, “if nothing prevents it”, employing the Stoic reserve clause.  Stoicism teaches us to reconcile determined action, in the service of wisdom and justice, with calm acceptance when things don’t turn out according to our plans or desires.

Chris: Two useful Stoics tips on travel: wishing ‘with reservation’ – e.g. ‘I want to arrive – if nothing prevents me’ or ‘I want to arrive on time – if nothing prevents me’ (this reservation can take off a lot of pressure) and playing your own specific role in life: remember you are the passenger not the driver or pilot – your role is to be a good passenger, calm and relaxed and helpful to others whatever the situation – it is not your job to pilot the plane, to run the catering, to drive the bus…

Alkistis: The obstacle is the way; S**t happens, and it’s a great opportunity to exercise ‘ataraxia’, to grow and learn through everything.To practice the wisdom of inner freedom.

6. Who is Stoicon for? Would it be of benefit  for someone who doesn’t know much about Stoicism?

Chris: Who would benefit from Stoicon? Anyone – for first-timers it is accessible and open and not ‘cliquey’ – but for those who are already involved in Stoic practice there is a chance to develop your ideas and share them with others.

Donald: Yes, we encourage all speakers to assume that many of the attendees will be new to the subject, although others may be experts themselves.  So ideally they’ll accommodate newbies but also say some things that will be of interest to those who are well-read in the literature of Stoicism.  We also try to begin with a quick introduction to help bring newcomers up to speed.  And the range of speakers from different backgrounds helps to ensure that even the most experienced students of the subject should find something new in the different perspectives represented.

Alkistis: Absolutely! I would recommend this event to anyone who is sincerely interested in learning about, ‘How To Be Free’, ‘How To Find Fulfillment’, ‘How To Live Well’.

7. What sorts of benefits are there for people to studying Stoic philosophy?

Alkistis: I can only speak for myself; Stoicism has helped me to overcome toxic habits like dramatizing, to be more honest with myself and others, and to experience freedom more often.Also, I like meeting people who share similar values.  

Chris: Stoicism offers a broad and deep framework for living – developed over 5 centuries in the ancient world and also reflected on by modern thinkers and writers. Not just a superficial quick-fix or how to – guide to life – but something that can offer a framework for addressing the big questions we all face – what is happiness, what is the purpose of life, how can I face my own death and that of those I love, why should I concern myself with other people or foreigners or the environment? Stoicism has long been valued for promoting resilience but also has great value in helping people to frame a positive, thoughtful and constructive attitude to living.

Donald: Studying Stoicism gives people a sense of direction and meaning in life, and a method for reflecting upon and examining events philosophically.  It also provides a surprisingly extensive armamentarium of psychological techniques which can contribute to building emotional resilience.

8. We’ve had Stoicon conferences now in London, Toronto, and New York. Now we’re meeting in Athens. What other locations do you think would be great for a future Stoicon?

Alkistis: I would love for it to happen in Rome too!

Donald: Rome would be an obvious choice.  I also think that an event on the West coast of the USA or Canada, perhaps in Vancouver, might be an option.  Another good location would be Vienna, in Austria, because it’s situated beside the huge archaeological park at Carnuntum, where Marcus Aurelius reputedly wrote (at east part of) The Meditations.  

9. We ask this every year: have we reached, or are we approaching “peak Stoicism”?

Donald: I don’t think so.  Stoic Week keeps growing bigger each year and that’s a good index.  Stoicism communities around the world, and online, continue to grow.  There are more and more books on Stoicism from new authors coming out all the time.  Facebook’s data show that over 1.5 million people say in their profiles that Marcus Aurelius is one of their favourite authors.  We’ve barely scraped the surface of the huge potential audience that exists for Stoic philosophy.

Chris: No – think how many people in the world would benefit from the kind of insights that Stoicism can offer – and how many people are very troubled by the way things are going and wanting to find a framework to deal with their own lives and  life around them.

Alkistis: No, of course not; Stoicism is flourishing, and changing lives everywhere. 

Press Release – Stoicon-X Toronto

We will be running a longer and fuller post about all of the Stoicon-X events happening worldwide this Fall two Saturdays from now. In the meantime, here is the press release for one of the Stoicon-X conferences, coming up on September 8, in Toronto, Canada.


Stoicism is a highly practical ancient Greek philosophy. It is meant to be put into action and is not designed for those who prefer to stay on the armchair. Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, it has captivated minds throughout history, and recently has experienced a revival. In 2013, Forbes magazine stated that modern Stoic thought “holds fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems.”

Thanks to the likes of Christopher Gill, Donald Robertson, and Jules Evans, the Modern Stoic movement has discovered itself. We have found the others

However, a question remains: How should Stoics practice? This answer has not been decidedly settled.  We are now in the process of discovering and developing ways to practice both individually and collectively. 

At this year’s Stoicon-X conference, the largest Stoic community in the world is hosting a conversation on practice. We have invited business leaders, psychologists, and philosophers to discuss how Stoics can practice philosophy as a way of life. This conference will play an important part in the development of shared practices for Stoicism. It could be the first step towards Modern Stoic thought becoming collectively embodied. 

Talks include: 

“HOW TO BE A STOIC WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW HOW” by Chuck Chakrapani. Editor of THE STOIC magazine. Author of “Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life”

“THE VIEW FROM ABOVE: A TRANSFORMATION OF PERSPECTIVAL AND PARTICIPATORY KNOWING” by John Vervaeke. Lecturer at the University of Toronto. Author of “Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis”

“HOW TO PRACTICE LIKE A ROMAN EMPEROR” by Donald Robertson. Cognitive Psychotherapist. Author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius”

“HOW TO THRIVE IN A WORLD OUT OF YOUR CONTROL, ONE PRACTICAL EXERCISE AT A TIME” by Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Author of “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life”

For more information about Stoicon-X go to www.thestoa.ca. If you have any questions and/or would like to help out email Peter Limberg at peterlimberg @ gmail dot com. 

Some Logical Reasonings about Schizophrenia by João Leite Ribeiro

To open this article on Schizophrenia nothing is better than Epictetus’s saying: “It is not things that trouble you, but your opinions on them”(Enchiridion 5). Perhaps this article will lead you, the reader, to have a more favorable opinion about people with Schizophrenia, and this will yield some peace to your heart.

I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when I was nineteen. I am now forty eight. I never really profited from medicines (although I see they do help many people) , but I improved by way of studying philosophy, especially the Stoics and the Indian Shankara. I now do many voluntary activities to help other diagnosed people. In this article I will discuss some observations I made, both from myself and from my peers. As this is a Stoic blog, I will focus more on  Stoic ideas, leaving Shankara aside.

This article is aimed to be of interest to those unfamiliar with Schizophrenia, and useful for those who are familiar. There is nothing definitive here, just speculation.

Anthropologist Jane Goodall when asked if she preferred Chimpanzees or Humans, answered she preferred some Chimpanzees and some Humans. Me too. I prefer some people with Schizophrenia and some “normal” people. This article is about those people with Schizophrenia I prefer. As Seneca said: “ In the choice of our friends, we should choose  the least maculated (the best ones).” ( Of Tranquility of the Soul, VII.7)

Most therapists assume there is something immature in a person with Schizophrenia. For them, the best to do is to provide us some reflection about ourselves or about the world that will make us “deal with our feelings” in a superior way. However, there is a mistake here. Because this way of seeing the problem is usually (though not always) vertical, not horizontal, i.e. the therapist is placed superior to the patient.

That vertical positioning is not true. That is (I think) the reason I am successful in my work, and that is what I will try to show in this article. Here I include a quotation from Marcus Aurelius: “Have in mind that all rational beings are related, and to care for everybody is of human nature” (3.4). I think from this quote we can infer everybody should be treated with equal respect.

So, let´s be Stoic. The obvious question is: What is a superior person?. This is a question some people may judge politically incorrect, but one that is necessary for this inquiry.

The first answer for the readers of this article is “a virtuous person”.

But that is a little vague, especially for whom doesn´t know Stoicism. I will start with another premise, with which I think most people would agree: a peaceful person is a superior one.

The reader says: Are you saying people with Schizophrenia (I avoid using the term “schizophrenic” because that reduces the person to this definition i.e. I believe we are more than our diagnostic) are peaceful? Yes, I am. At least those I prefer. I am a facilitator, that is, I direct peer support groups of people with Schizophrenia. I don´t know how useful I really am, but I remember Seneca: “What is demanded from a man is that he be useful to the most people possible” (On Leisure, 3 )

In one of my groups a girl declared: “I am going to give birth to the devil.” There was a respectful silence, and an opportunity for her to explain that was because she had a divine mission to bring peace to the world, and giving birth to the devil she would make him give up his hate, and by way of that make the world more peaceful. Nobody opposed her opinion. Here I quote Marcus Aurelius: “Reason is common to us all” (4.4.)

Everything in this event was peaceful. And one should notice here my behavior: I adopted a logical position. I did not allow myself to rush into telling her not to fantasize (although it seemed she was delusional). I gave her the opportunity to explain why she thought that way. And I, and everybody, respected her view, as her viewpoint. And all that was logical, and peaceful. Once, discussing with some followers of Pyrrho, I suggested his viewpoint of having  no opinions was a peaceful one, and they agreed. If you are not eager to uphold your opinion, you become more open to others. Or, if you wish, you should be the superman or the child of Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 1, discourse 1).

Another day one of the patients started to hug me, and hold  my hand. I did not oppose. I noticed some people were finding that a bit “gay”, but we did not mind. He now repeats that behavior every time we meet. Even in the street. In fact, he may have set a pattern, I think those of my groups have more physical contact than the average. What is that, if not peace?

My friends have difficulties in sustaining romantic relationships. It is really difficult if you depend on your parents or other relatives, if you don’t drive, if you sometimes get anxious and most importantly, if it is difficult for you to walk around.

Nevertheless sometimes two people in those groups start a relationship. And, it should be noticed, they often agree not to engage sexually. So, it is just about the love between two people. What is that, if not peace?

Yes, says the reader, but this is a Stoic blog, we want to hear about self control. And there you are in trouble! We all know all the emphasis of the Stoics in discipline. Perhaps we could remember Epictetus: “When by reasoning you judge you should do something, do it” (Enchiridion 35)

But I answer to the reader : not at all ! Because you should not judge the sailor before you know the storm! We are all crossing the ocean, but for some there´s a friendly wind, while for others there is a tempest.

Many therapists ignore this, but it is a centrally important fact : my peers have often been abused. They suffered bullying. They experienced trauma. Their own parents were disappointed and aggressive with them. They are more sensible and perhaps more vulnerable (some people are, and that´s not their fault), and there is a feature of many people to abuse others who are more vulnerable. It is not the majority but that happens. Some people don´t let escape any opportunity of abusing others. And that is tragic, as then the abused generalize from that, and start thinking they will be abused forever. I believe Marcus Aurelius is wise when he says: “Remember we live only the present” (3.10). My peers forget this. Their past rules their present.

It is upon knowing that that you should think. And perceive these people may actually be good sailors, given the storms they face.

OK, says the reader. What are you suggesting, that we elect our next president a schizophrenic?

 I thank you for the question. Let´s be logical once again. Who makes beautiful chairs? A good carpenter, correct? Who plays football well? Brazilian players, who play in the difficult fields of the streets since their childhood, correct? And who is able to be a good president? An honest person who knows how things work, correct?

And then, the proper question is: what do people with Schizophrenia know how to do? As a facilitator I tell you. They make you exercise your logic, your patience, your sense of justice, even your courage. People with schizophrenia might make you more virtuous. Is there a better talent than that?

Marcus Aurelius spoke about turning obstacles into fuel. People with schizophrenia are an obstacle of a special quality, they provide more fuel than other obstacles.

But then I can hear the angry father: What the hell are you suggesting? That Schizophrenia is good? That I should not give medicine to my son?

No. Schizophrenia brings a lot of bad feelings. To the person and to everybody who coexist with the person.And yes. Statistics are undeniable. Those who take medicine have less surges and less suicide attempts. But let’s think this though together, and figure out the best we can do.

Some observations are possible. My peers are afraid. They all are. They are highly insecure, and they feel deeply misunderstood. All of them (I have never seen one who did not agree with this) report a deep sense of loneliness.

I was once an employee in a psychiatric clinic. I was paid just to talk to the patients, to have what I called “a philosophical conversation”. One day, as I arrived, a nurse approached me and speaking low, as if afraid someone could hear, told me to be careful, because one guy there was very aggressive, and he might attack me physically. I thought, well, I have a challenge here and I will face it.

He was making strange gestures with his arms and hands, something I could not at first understand. But then I realized he was conducting a music that was playing, like a maestro. I did not know what to do, but I started to mimic him. He apparently thought I appreciated the music the same as him, and laughed. That started an understanding. He lowered the music, so that we could start talking. And a bit later, he turned off the music. As we talked, I asked if there was someone he trusted. He said no, only me. I was sad and happy at the same time.

But we can infer something from this experience. At first, he was completely alone, just making his gestures, with no hope of being understood. Then, it seems, a hope appeared in his heart. And finally he seemed to feel I understood him.  As Marcus Aurelius puts it: “Judge things as they really are, not as a hasty man judges them.” (4.11)

That experience is not an exception. I felt similar in my life. Nobody had the least idea what was going on inside me. So, it seems to me, it is useful to make the person feel he is being understood. It is a first step he can acquire confidence. But he will never feel understood if he perceives you judge yourself superior. So, here we have a delicate situation. We need to show both respect and comprehension.

I think a good way to do that, is focusing in on logic. Trying to understand what the person is saying, and just that, with no wish to show anything, that you have some knowledge or experience he doesn’t have. And, very important, the person should not think you are talking to him in order to acquire prestige, that is, that you want to show everybody you understand him. Here a lot of quotations would fit, I believe all Stoic thinkers stressed the importance of logic. Perhaps I could quote Marcus Aurelius: “Do you have an ability of being rational? If so, why don’t you use it?” (4.13)

Other people may have other approaches. I don’t want to rule those out, but I think logic is a good start. Someone may argue logic is cold, and the greatest need is to be warm. That is true. But I believe, as I said, logic is a start. You begin the relationship trying to understand what the person has to say, and agreeing, whatever he says. And then, as the talk goes, you can reach an emotive understanding.

I am not saying it is easy, or that there is a precise answer. However, I work in a hospital. Anyone can see that those who participate in my groups, (or some other person´s group) are better. It is also because those who search for these groups are already in a better condition, but I keep the argument, because the reason they are better before coming to the groups, is the same they improve with the groups. That is, they feel understood.

To provide that, my feelings are it is better to forget any preconceived ideas. In other words, to be logical. And logic here is also to acknowledge you never understand all of the person. We may today reach an agreement, but tomorrow this same person may surprise you. So, I think we can help my peers by way of making them feel understood. They may grow more confident, they may improve their communicative  skills, and ultimately make friends, and be able to walk around. Logic pervades all this process.

And something interesting happens, that sometimes the participants in the group learn from the facilitator a more logical attitude. And this improves their lives.

Logic for me is perhaps the subtraction of the Ego. What hinders us from being logical? Our wishes and desires? Logic is opposed to a big Ego. It helps you to be more detached, and therefore more free. As Epictetus said: “You won´t wish to be a general, a priest or a consul, you will wish to be free. And the only way to be free is to despise what we are not in charge”(Enchiridion 19) (here we know that logic is perhaps what is most up to us).

My peers are not inferior. They should be treated as equals, and we should not judge that all of Schizophrenia is bad. It brings undoubtedly much suffering, but also some qualities to the sufferer.

And, to that angry father, I do not oppose the use of medicines. But something should be said. The drugs available in the market, they don’t teach you anything. Nobody learns from the experience of consuming Haldol or Clozapine. It is true that we observe when the person stops taking the medicine, all symptoms come back. They do not disappear with the use of these drugs as some people argue they do, they only diminish, and they all resurge when we stop taking the medicine. So, what have we profited from those drugs? While a more logical attitude the patients may learn from the example of the facilitator, is more likely to last, and to really make us better people, more confident, more open. “Happy is the person who is led by reason”  (Seneca, On The Happy Life, 6).

João Leite Ribeiro was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 19.He is now 48, and has had a very surprising story of recovery. He now facilitates peer supports groups and gives lectures. He is mainly a self taught  person, but he completed the course of the School of Essential Studies on Stoicism. He is also the author of the book Memórias de um Estoico (The memoirs of a Stoic) which unfortunately has not been translated into English.


Is It Possible To Escape Time? by Jean-Baptiste Roncari

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Is it possible to escape time? This subject appeared in the philosophy examination of the 2019 literary French baccalaureate. In this post, I would like to propose a Stoic answer based on Seneca, who studied the question of time in his treatise On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae). This post is not an answer key to the question, but a freely inspired exercise that seeks to articulate the stoic philosopher’s reflection on the issue raised.


In Stoicism, time is described as incorporeal. It is not possible to act upon it, neither can it be affected by the interaction of another body. It escapes the causality of the world, just like gravity, the void, or the sayables. So, it seems impossible to influence it. The march of the stars as well as the aging of our bodies do not depend on any particular will.

However, beyond scientifically defined time, the time that makes each second equal to the next, there is a subjectively lived time: 8 hours of sleep do not have the same subjective duration as 8 hours of wakefulness; 3 minutes in a dream may only represent 3 seconds in reality; 1 hour of boredom is not worth 1 hour of leisure, etc. Some control seems possible over this second type of time.

In the context of practical philosophy, the subject must be problematized in relation to its existential implications. We can, with Seneca, distinguish different times: the time of life and the time of non-life. Seneca does not use these terms but talks about the lifestyle of the occupied (occupati) and the lifestyle of leisured people (otiosi). The former are alienated and allow themselves rather than living, while the latter are fully in control of their existence. Many human beings exist without living, that is to say, they alienate themselves in occupations unnecessary – if not harmful – to their natural happiness. They do not escape time, but rather it is time that escapes them. On the other hand, otiosi, those who lead a philosophical life, have a use of time that allows a certain existential detachment.

Given these considerations, we can therefore ask ourselves if appropriating time allows us to free ourselves from it. It will first be necessary to clarify the proper use of time and then to understand whether or not this makes it possible to free oneself from it. Throughout the development process, it is the angle of practical philosophy, the one that supports concrete action, that will be maintained.

I. Of Good Use of time

Time is one of the things that does not depend on oneself, like gravity, body health, reputation, wealth, weather, place of birth, etc. And yet, Seneca affirms that “the life we are given isn’t short, but we make it so” (I. 4). To what extent would it then be possible to influence the duration of our personal experience?

1. Time is a value too often overlooked

First, we must distinguish between time, which follows its course independently of our will, and the use of time, which is specific to each individual. On this point, Seneca notes that most human beings misuse time: we spend it on activities useless to our happiness. We lose it in useless or even harmful company. We spend it as if it were infinite. The Stoic author is surprised that we are stingier with our money and material goods than with our time. He says:

Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy


To use our time well, it is therefore necessary to be aware of its value. Every lost second is a lost second. It is not equivalent to money, which can come back, or other forms of material goods. For these reasons, Seneca criticizes those who wish to wait until retirement age to engage in truly human activities (meditation, contemplation, studies…), and those who suddenly and tragically become aware that they have not lived when they are on the death bed.

2. To exist is not the same as to live

Seneca then distinguishes existence and life. To live is to follow our human nature. To exist is to ignore this human nature. For the philosopher, all those who alienate themselves in a particular activity, the occupied, waste their lives:

They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better ; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement : it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future.


The occupied or foolish are slaves of time, worried for example that their pleasures will one day end, that their bodies will age, that their fortune will disappear… Seneca does not run out of illustrations: drunks, lazy people, avaricious people, debauched people, but also unsuccessful courtiers, idle people, those who lose too much time in bodily care, those who live only following a passion, those who engage in a work of erudition that does not help one know how to live, and so on. They miss their lives without even knowing it.

3. What does living mean?

To live precisely, we must be aware of our human nature.  We are beings endowed with reason and, for the Stoics, it is the path of reason that leads us to happiness. Once again, we do not choose to exist but we choose the way we exist, the way we spend our time. A bad way of existing, one that alienates us, that develops in us vices or an ignorance of our own human condition, will considerably reduce the quality of our existence and, at the same time, the duration of our lived experience. On the other hand, a good way of existing, one that develops virtues in us – excellence of character, a mind structured by reason – and an awareness of our role in Nature, will allow us to live fully, even beyond our singular existence:

Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live.


It is in philosophy that we begin to live and that the duration of our experience is then measurable. Otherwise, we remain in bare existence without value.

In short, quality of life is more important than life span. An old man may have lived less than a young man. This is because subjectively, the philosopher or wise person, even a young one, will necessarily be satisfied with the length of his existence.

To live, in the philosophical sense proposed by Seneca, is therefore to appropriate the time of one’s existence to make it a duration of no importance in relation to our serenity. To what extent, however, do philosophy, and by extension wisdom, free us from the singular time of our existence?

II. Does using your time well allow you to free yourself from it? 

What matters, then, is the evolution of the soul rather than that of the body. Practical philosophy develops an art of living.  Does the evolution of the soul allow us to go beyond the temporal framework of our existence? Would wisdom – the purpose of practical philosophy – be a point of immortality that would elevate us beyond our mere presence in the world?

1. Spiritual exercises to appropriate time

In his treatise, Seneca indirectly mentions two spiritual exercises: self-attention and self-examination. The first helps to be aware of your actions and the movement of your soul. When anger comes, for example, it allows us to pause the internal dynamics that lead to passion, and to evaluate, with reason, whether or not it is wise to let this dynamic come to an end.

The second exercise helps to evaluate past thoughts and actions to see if I have done the right thing, done the wrong thing or missed the opportunity to do better. In relation to the subject, the self-examination allows me to have an insight into the quality of my existence, a quality optimized by self-attention: 

Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you’d intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing ; how much time has been lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You’ll come to realize that you’re dying before your time.


An existence without self-examination and without self-attention is a life that will necessarily be brief. If spiritual exercises are important, it is because they bring us closer to wisdom. In Stoicism, wisdom, once acquired, remains anchored in ourselves until our death. With it, life is long enough. The happiness it brings is infinite, outside of any temporal preoccupation. A wise man would be happy for 10,000 years if he could live that long.  He would also be for 10 hours if he only had 10 hours left to live. It is therefore a first response to our question : the appropriation of our time of existence by philosophy allows us to free ourselves from certain temporal concerns by delivering an atemporal happiness. We do not free ourselves from time but we structure our mind on an archetype that detaches itself from it.

2. Joining the noosphere of wisdom

Seneca, however, speaks of immortality in a slightly more sibylline sense:

if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over.


What the author seems to mean here is that our mind can agree, through philosophy and its purpose, wisdom, on infinite and eternal ideas that we have in common with the best of men:

We can debate with Socrates, entertain doubt with Carneades, be at peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and go beyond it with the Cynics


The Russian mineralogist and chemist Vladimir Vernadsky might talk here about joining in thought a kind of noosphere of the wisdom. It is another form of appropriation of time beyond our temporary existence. Seneca even believes that the company of these great men leads to eternity and can change our mortal state into immortality. The hypothesis of an esoteric meaning where it is the transcendence of the self through philosophy that leads to mystical immortality is not to be excluded. But more prosaically, wisdom necessarily leads to a changed perception of time.

3. The relationship to time in the wise man

The author does not really elaborate on this, but, in the wise man’s case, “the combining of all times into one makes his life long” (XV.5). Where the occupied and other foolish fall into a fatal triptych: “forget the past, disregard the present and fear for the future” (XVI.1), the wise recollects the time spent by memory, uses the present time and anticipates the future. The past is in memory for the self-examination and to remain aware of the path taken to wisdom; the future is seized in advance in the sense that the soul of the wise is prepared for all events of destiny; the present is the time of self-attention.

This is the exact opposite of the use of time by the occupied. In the life of the wise man,

none of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole of life yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply sufficient; and for that reason, whenever his last day comes, the sage will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step.


In concrete terms, the wise person appropriates all time, past, present and future to merge them into one, the present, in his mind. By doing so, he frees himself from the worries of the past and the future into which so often the unwise fall.


Time is a precious value and the use we make of it determines the quality of our existence. An alienated life, of pleasures, or idleness goes against our rational and reasonable state of being. This existence will necessarily be brief because it lacks density. The mind will remain unsatisfied and will fear death. It is leisure life, in the most philosophical sense of the word, that transforms our time of existence into a lived experience. Thus, the appropriation of time through philosophical discipline makes it possible to change the plan.

This life, the life of the wise man in the highest point, has necessarily a satisfying duration. The wise man does not escape time, his body ages, but he transcends it in thoughts through a wisely structured soul. He lives beyond temporal preoccupations, in the present time, and joins the atemporal universe of the greatest minds. To appropriate time thus makes it possible to free oneself from it only insofar as the appropriation is philosophical and that the liberation is that of the soul.

Jean-Baptiste Roncari has a masters in political sociology from the Institute of Political Studies of Strasbourg. He is active in the French-speaking Stoic association Stoa Gallica, and he shares his experience with Stoicism on the blog Un Regard Stoïcien (Facebook page here) and through his Instagram account @unregardstoicien.

Joseph Hall, a very English Neo-Stoic by Max Longley

A line drawing of Hall with a hood and long beard

Stoics have been known to connect inner tranquility with peace and tranquility in relations with others. This may be why many Stoics have sought peace in the external world as well as the internal. From Seneca vainly pleading with Nero to practice clemency and moderation, to Musonius Rufus vainly stepping into mutually-hostile groups of Roman soldiers and attempting to talk them out of fighting, Stoics have a history of trying to preach peace – and of being disregarded.

Into this tradition of preaching both internal and external peace falls Joseph Hall (1574-1656), an Anglican clergyman who tried to stand between hostile English religious forces whose antagonisms, despite Hall’s pleas, ultimately contributed to the English Civil War. Though his peaceful counsels were disregarded on the national level, his bestselling work Heaven Upon Earth appealed to readers who at least sought inner tranquility.

Hall was part of a Renaissance/Early Modern movement known as Neo-Stoicism. While the Christian world had never fully forgotten or ignored the Stoics, the appearance of new printed editions of many Stoic classics during the Renaissance – and the discrediting of spurious Stoic works – as well as commentaries such as those of Justus Lipsius, prompted a renewed interest in applying at least some Stoic insights to Christian living, especially as an era of religio-political uncertainty, strife and outright war.

Joseph Hall, a very English Stoic, was born near a town with the very English name of Ashby-de-la Zouch. As he grew up, inspired by a pious mother, he took an interest in religion. He wanted to be a Church of England priest, which generally required a course of instruction in one of the great English universities. Hall’s father – Hall had many siblings – wasn’t sure he could afford university for him, and was originally going to indenture him to receive private, non-university tutoring. At the last minute, Hall’s father changed his mind, and soon afterward a relative agreed to pay much of Hall’s expenses at Cambridge’s Emmanuel College.

Hall later described his many years at Emanuel as the best years of his life. Emmanuel was known as a center of Calvinism whose graduates went on to become influential Calvinist ministers and bishops in the government-established Church of England. Trained in good Calvinist doctrine while studying classic works like those of Seneca, Hall developed into a learned young man.

Hall also showed a literary bent, becoming known for his poetry. He may have helped write a play performed by students at another Cambridge college (Emmanuel would presumably have frowned on theatrical productions). The last of a trilogy, the play was a comedy with a serious undertone – following Cambridge graduates as they went about the country in a frantic search for decent-paying jobs.

Hall also published satirical verses taking caustic aim at social abuses, such as greedy doctors and lawyers, and hitting the government even closer to home by denouncing the enclosure of agricultural land by rich farmers at the expense of poor agriculturalists. High-up Church officials put a collection of Hall’s satires on a list of books to be burned, but somehow the ecclesiastics promptly changed their minds and gave the work a reprieve.

As Hall moved into a clerical career, he continued writing, but his focus turned from direct social satire to preaching godliness. Clerical appointments were in control of influential laymen, and one of these, Sir Robert Drury, arranged to make Hall the parish priest at Hawstead, where his position turned out to be ill-paid. As Hall later noted, in order to earn enough money to buy books, he had to write books of his own. He was also harassed by one of Drury’s friends, a “bold and witty atheist” named Lilly. As Hall recalls it, in his daily prayers he asked God to “remove” Lilly “by some means or other,” and indeed Lilly later died of a “pestilence” – supposedly while on the way to London to lobby against Hall.

Another consolation was that Hall got married (as Anglican priests are allowed to do). The couple had many children, and later, by Hall’s account, a “great man” observed his numerous offspring and said that children made a rich man poor. “Nay, my Lord,” Hall claims to have replied, “these are they, that make a poor man rich; for there is not one of these, whom we would part with for all your wealth.”

In 1606, while at Hawstead, Hall published Heaven Upon Earth, a Neo-Stoic work which would prove very popular, going through eight editions (four stand-alone editions, and four more editions in which Heaven Upon Earth was combined with some of Hall’s other works). Hall’s goal, he told the reader, was “to teach men how to be happy in this life.” Here, Hall declared, he had “followed Seneca; and gone beyond him: followed him, as a philosopher; gone beyond him, as a Christian, as a divine.”

Hall wrote that be both envied the Stoics – envied, because they had come up with “such plausible refuges for doubting and troubled minds;” pitied, because without the benefit of the Christian revelation, Stoic methods would only lead to “unquietness.” No “heathen” ever “wrote more divinely” than Seneca, and “never any philosopher (wrote) more probably.” Hall would be a Stoic if “I needed no better mistress than nature” – i. e., philosophy without Christianity. But to obtain true tranquility in this life required Christianity, not just philosophy: “Not Athens must teach this lesson, but Jerusalem.” Key Stoic ideas, however, could help guide the Christian.

Heaven Upon Earth proceeded to list the reasons men lacked spiritual peace, and proposed remedies taken from both Calvinist Christianity and Stoicism.

(T)ranquility of mind…is such an even disposition of the heart, wherein the scales of the mind neither rise up towards the beam, through their own lightness, or the overweening opinion of prosperity, nor are too much depressed with any load of sorrow; but hanging equal and unmoved betwixt both, give a man liberty in all occurrences to enjoy himself.

Hall listed the various threats to mental tranquility. He began with sin. A person guilty of sin could not attain tranquility in this life, or the next, unless he repented and turned to Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross repaid the infinite debt which sinful humans owed to God.

In addition to sin, men had their tranquility threatened by “crosses,” or “sense or fear of evil suffered.” Millions of people lived in “perpetual discontentment” due to crosses such as severe illness or excessive grief. For these and other crosses, Hall’s advice was: “make thyself none; escape some; bear the rest; sweeten all.”

Heaven Upon Earth proposed a distinctly Stoic remedy for fears of future misfortune such as sickness, poverty, and imprisonment: “present to ourselves imaginary crosses, and manage them in our mind before God sends them in event.” In this way, “while the mind pleaseth itself in thinking, ‘Yet I am not thus,’ it prepareth itself against (the possibility that) it may be so.”

Like Stoics, Calvinists believed in a strict divine necessity, such that whatever happened, had to happen. Calvin himself had frequently been obliged to fend off accusations of Stoicism, arguing that his ideas were not Stoic. Calvin’s ideas of predestination were based on a sovereign God outside the universe making decrees for the universe, while the Stoics put God in the universe. Still, the similarities were there, and Hall reflected these ideas of metaphysical necessity with the comforting advice that crosses are part of the divine plan.

“Crosses, unjustly termed evils, as they are sent of him that is all goodness, so they are sent for good, and his end cannot be frustrate(d).” Like a doctor prescribing cures for physical ailments, God prescribed certain crosses as cures for spiritual ailments: pride, laziness, anger and other sins. “The loss of wealth, friends, health, is sometimes gain to us. Thy body, thy estate is worse: thy soul is better; why complainest thou?” God knows the best mix of good and bad fortune to suit any particular person’s condition.

The fear of death was another cross. To Hall, such fear could involve shrinking from the painful process of dying, or fear of what happens after death. The true Christian, having laid his sins at the foot of the cross, need not fear – “the resolved Christian dares, and would die, because he knows he shall be happy” in Heaven.

Like Marcus Aurelius, Hall dismissed the spurious immortality of fame – “the fame that survives the soul is bootless,” i. e. useless. Letting one’s tranquility be disturbed by the bad opinions of enemies is also useless and harmful. Denouncing the desire for popularity, Hall apostrophized: “O fickle good, that is ever in the keeping of others!  especially of the unstable vulgar, that beast of many heads; whose divided tongues, as they never agree with each other, so seldom…agree long with themselves,” if they agree at all.

In reality, earthly pleasures were insecure and fleeting, giving in any case no contentment because they were insatiable and had no logical stopping point. Prosperous people were more “exposed to evil” than the poor, who having little to lose could more easily rebuilt after a disaster. The enjoyment of “pleasure” or “sensuality” could turn men into animals (invoking the myth of Circe). And pleasure could depart rapidly, without notice.

Anyone undergoing crosses could turn to divine contemplation: “He that will have and hold right tranquillity, must find in himself a sweet fruition of God, and feeling apprehension of his presence.” As long as Hall knows “that God favours me; then I have liberty in prison, home in banishment, honour in contempt, in losses wealth, health in infirmity, life in death, and in all these, happiness.” Daily communion with God, giving Him thanksgiving and prayers, would keep the reader in touch with the source of all tranquility.

Hall also advised the reader not to take action before satisfying all conscientious doubts as to the action’s rightness. Hall gave the example of lending at interest (“usury”). Hall thought he would not be secure in his conscience unless he refrained from offering such loans, despite the plausible-seeming arguments in favor of moderate interest. It’s hard “to determine, whether it be worse to do a lawful act with doubting, or an evil with resolution.” Acting in doubtful cases would unsettle the conscience, threatening tranquility. Hall would come to observe too many situations where – at least to his way of thinking – people rushed into conflict without first fully weighing the issues at hand in the tribunal of conscience to decide if action was warranted.

In addition to Heaven Upon Earth, Hall wrote many other devotional books, including meditations upon God’s work in nature – even watching a spider could be a prompt for deep spiritual reflections. Gathering fame as an author, Hall began improving his earthly fortunes, switching patrons from Robert Drury to Edward Denny (a future Earl of Norwich). Through Denny’s influence, Hall obtained a new parish in Waltham, Denny’s home base on the east coast of England. The pay was better than at Hawstead, but Hall denied to his old patron Drury that his switch was purely mercenary in motive. True, Hall’s discontent with his position at Hawstead had started with the financial situation, yet his ultimate decision for Waltham was based on the greater spiritual harvest to be gathered there.

Hall was also invited to London to preach to Prince Henry, elder son of King James I, and was invited to become one of Henry’s twenty-four chaplains, visiting Prince Henry one month per year to share his duties with a co-chaplain. This brought Hall into the lively mini-court of the heir to the throne. Like Hall, Prince Henry was a pious Calvinist. The Prince surrounded himself with ambitious literary and practical men. Henry had a particular desire to lead the Protestant forces of Europe in what we now know as the lead-up to the Thirty Years’ War.

Professor Geoffrey Aggeler suggests that the English Neo-Stoics tended to be Calvinists. Certainly, the circle around Prince Henry included such Calvinist Neo-Stoics. King James noticed this, and warned his son against “Stoicke insensible stupidity.” To Prince Henry and many of his associates, Neo-Stoicism was a fighter’s faith by which one prepared for life as a self-disciplined Protestant soldier or statesman. The Prince never had the chance to be the chevalier of Protestantism, dying of an unexpected illness in 1612 at the age of 18. Many of the Neo-Stoic Calvinists in Prince Henry’s circle would drift away from the monarchy, and toward Parliament, as their preferred instrument for making England more Godly.

But not Hall. King James selected the now prominent and respected cleric for important religious negotiations. In 1617, when James went to Scotland (where he ruled as James VI), he wanted the famously-Calvinistic Scottish church leaders to adopt certain practices, such as kneeling at Communion, which Scottish Calvinists considered “papist.” On James’ instructions, Hall, who was in the king’s entourage, tried to persuade the suspicious Scottish churchmen that these matters of ritual could be accepted because they were adiaphora – matters of indifference (the same term the old Stoics had used for indifferent matters like health and reputation, though in this context Hall meant indifferent from the standpoint of salvation). Hall had more credibility with Calvinists than many other Church of England figures – which is why James used him as an emissary – but Scotland was not religiously pacified.

James also sent Hall as one of the English delegates to the Dutch city of Dordrecht (Dort) to address a dispute roiling the Protestant world. A minister named Arminius defended the doctrine of free will in a challenge to Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election. The 1618-19 Synod of Dort upheld the Calvinist position, which Hall supported. However, Hall perceived a tendency on the part of the disputing parties to fight with stubbornness and acrimony on debatable points, which he warned against in a speech to the Synod. He called for (Protestant) unity amidst the various factions of the time: “We are brothers, Christians, not Remonstrants, Contra-Remonstrants, Calvinists, or Arminians.” Hall was soon obliged to return to England for reasons of health. He expressed his frustration at existing religious animosities in an unpublished writing called Via Media (the middle way): “I see every man ready to rank himself unto a side. I see no man thrusting himself between them, and either holding or joining their hands for peace. This good, however thankless, office, I have here boldly undertaken.” Hall was quite willing to sacrifice religious freedom for the sake of religious peace, supporting government censorship of fruitless religious debate.

In 1625, King James died. So long as the church had bishops and a sufficiently-formal liturgy, James had been quite willing to allow Calvinism among the clergy. Had Prince Henry survived, this situation might have persisted – if Hall were non-Stoic enough to feel regret for the past, he might have wished Henry had lived to inherit the crown and keep unity among English Protestants. Instead, the crown was inherited by Henry’s younger brother Charles, whom Henry has joked would make a better Archbishop of Canterbury than a king. Sadly, even this snide put-down had been too optimistic.

One of Charles I’s early actions was to make Joseph Hall the Bishop of Exeter, in England’s southwest. But this appointment was made in 1627, during an early, moderate phase of Charles’ reign. It was not long before Charles decided upon a church policy different from Hall’s – a policy advocated by men like William Laud, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud and his faction rejected Calvinism completely, embracing the “Arminian” doctrines the Calvinists detested. The English Church was to be forced to accept free will whether it wanted to or not. Anglican clergy were also pressured to emphasize high-church ritual rather than preaching – unless the preaching was to Laud’s liking.

As bishop of Exeter, Hall strove to improve the number and quality of preachers of the Gospel in his diocese. He did not monitor his Calvinist clergy for strict liturgical compliance – many of these clergy followed a slimmed-down liturgy focusing on Bible-reading and preaching. Given that the Laudian faction was taking over the Church, Bishop Hall soon faced rumors that he was a Puritan sympathizer. In a memorandum, probably written for circulation among influential persons, Hall defended himself.

He defined Puritanism narrowly as meaning disturbers of the Church’s peace, and denied that Puritans in that sense were in his diocese. He had expelled such disturbers from, or kept them from entering, the diocese. Enforcing the Anglican Church’s legal monopoly on religious worship, Bishop Hall denied the right of anyone – Catholic or Protestant – to worship in a church separate from the Anglican Church. Within the Anglican Church, however, Hall was willing to be tolerant of most people who behaved themselves and maintained religious peace. Going on the offensive in his memorandum, Hall suggested that “Puritan” was a slur which lazy or corrupt clergy and laity employed to denounce people more Godly than themselves. The bishop said he would spend more effort on getting rid of drunken and profane clerics than on monitoring pious ministers for Laudian high-church conformity.

Hall wasn’t simply facing pressure from Laudians who thought he was too Puritan, he also had to deal with fellow-Calvinists who thought he wasn’t Puritan enough. For example, the militant element of the English Puritan faction rejected the office of bishop as an unscriptural relic of papism, advocating instead that the English Church be governed by bodies of elders – “presbyters.” Liturgical formality above the minimum should also be abolished, and special feasts (like Christmas) should also be cast away, according to the militants. To answer such claims, Hall wrote in defense of episcopal government against the advocates of presbyterianism, prompting angry responses from various Puritan pamphleteers, including the poet John Milton.

In 1639, Bishop Hall published a booklet entitled Christian Moderation. Showing the Neo-Stoic connection between personal moderation and moderation in matters affecting the body politic, the bishop started out with a discussion about abating one’s individual passions. From there, without going into specific doctrinal topics, Hall gave recommendations for the proper spirit in which religious discussion ought to be conducted. Bishop Hall rejected certain debating tactics which improperly inflamed the passions but which had become all too common in religious disputation. These included what we would today call straw-manning and guilt by association. Ad hominem attacks, and exaggeration of the differences among the contending parties, also met with Hall’s displeasure. Even if Englishmen couldn’t reach theological agreement, “we should compose our affections to all peace…What if our brains be diverse! yet let our hearts be one.”

When Parliament convened around this time, Bishop Hall attended the House of Lords, of which, like all bishops, he was ex offico a member. The presence of bishops in Parliament was one of the complaints of the radical Puritans in the House of Commons, and as the conflict between King and Parliament grew hotter, the Commons passed bills to kick the bishops out of the Lords. Hall and other bishops eloquently defended their right to be involved in Parliamentary affairs, and the Lords blocked the Commons’ bills. Attempting a new tactic, the Commons impeached Hall and other bishops for governing the Church without Parliamentary consent.

Then as 1641 drew into December, angry London mobs threatened the bishops when they tried to attend Parliament. Hall and several other bishops signed a protest, declaring that until they could take part in Parliamentary deliberations, free from mob intimidation, Parliament’s acts would not be valid. Now the Commons impeached Hall and the other signatories for high treason, and the House of Lords committed them to the Tower of London. Meanwhile, King Charles had appointed Hall as the new bishop of Norwich, near the east coast and about a hundred miles southeast of Hall’s old parish of Waltham. But for now Hall was in a cell and could not visit Norwich. He did have the chance to preach from the Tower to interested London citizens, and he wrote to express relief that the Tower’s walls at least protected him from the mob.

In Heaven Upon Earth, Hall’s words of comfort had included solace for prisoners, and Hall may have had occasion to turn to his own words: “Am I in prison, or in the hell of prisons, in some dark, low, and desolate dungeon?…What walls can keep out that Infinite Spirit that fills all things? What darkness can be, where the God of this sun dwelleth? What sorrow, where he comforteth?”

In mid-1642, after some wrangling between the Houses, Parliament decided to release Hall and the other bishops without resolving the treason charges. Hall had to pay five thousand pounds in bail – an enormous sum for that time. Then, out of the frying pan and into the fire – Joseph Hall went to Norwich to take up his new bishopric. Norwich was loyal to Parliament and would raise troops for Cromwell in the soon-to-commence civil war. And Parliament had just voted to deprive Hall and his episcopal colleagues of their property and income, except for a shaky promise of annuities for their support.

Unsurprisingly, Bishop Hall was not allowed to remain unmolested in the Norwich cathedral. Parliamentary supporters came to seize his property, and to deface the “idolatrous” stained-glass windows and other papist-looking church fixings. Hall and his family were evicted from the episcopal residence, and ended up renting a house in nearby Heigham.

In Heaven Upon Earth, Hall had given this meditation to think on in times of prosperity: “what if poverty should rush upon me, as an armed man; spoiling me of all my little that I had, and send me to the fountain for my best cellar” – i. e., drink water from a fountain rather than getting a drink from his wine cellar – “to the ground, for my bed—for my bread, to another’s cupboard—for my clothes, to the broker’s shop, or my friend’s ward robe? How could I brook this want?” Hall didn’t have to sleep on the ground, but he had been obliged to rely on friends and supporters for his support as he once again took up his pen.

While Hall lived in retirement, the English Civil War raged and was followed by the kingless and bishop-less Commonwealth where “prelacy” (government of the church by bishops) was specifically denied the protection of religious freedom. Hall busied himself in writing religious works, of which he published several. In effect he was acting as a private person, though some dissidents from the new regime may have quietly recognized him as still the bishop of Norwich.

The dispossessed bishop made one final effort in healing the country’s religious divisions in a work entitled The Peacemaker. In this book, Hall distinguished between essential Christian doctrines and inessential doctrines about which quarrels were dangerous: “It is possible I may meet with some private opinion which I may strongly conceive more probable than the common, and perhaps I may think myself able to prove it so; shall I presently, out of an ostentation of my own parts (abilities), vent this to the world, and strain my wit to make it good by a peremptory defence, to the disturbance of the Church, and not rather smother it in my own bosom, as thinking the loss much easier of a conceit than of peace?” The government should not tolerate authors or preachers who disturb the religious peace – “how worthy are they to smart, that mar the harmony of our peace by the discordous jars of their new and paradoxal conceits!” Hall believed he had witnessed the link between verbal religious warfare and actual warfare, and he wanted to nip the evil in the bud.

Hall was eighty-two – quite an advanced age for that time – when he passed away in 1656. He had given Stoic advice for the alleviation of private and public disturbances of tranquility, and had met such disturbances in his own life.

Works Consulted

Geoffrey Aggeler, “‘Sparkes of Holy Things: Neostoicism and the English Protestant Conscience,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme New Series / Nouvelle Série, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer / été 1990), pp. 223-240.

Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake, “Popularity, Prelacy and Puritanism in the 1630s: Joseph Hall Explains Himself,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 443 (Sep., 1996), pp. 856-881.

Sarah Fraser, The Prince Who Would Be King: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart (London: William Collins, 2017).

Joseph Hall (R. Cattermole, ed.), Treatises, Devotional and Practical (London: John Hatchard and Son, 1834).

Joseph Hall and John Jones, Bishop Hall: His Life and Times (London: L. B. Seeley, 1826).

Frank Livingston Huntley, Bishop Joseph Hall 1574-1656: A Biographical and Critical Study (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979).

Dan Steere, “‘For the Peace of Both, for the Humour of Neither’: Bishop Joseph Hall Defends the Via Media in an Age of Extremes, 1601-1656,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 749-765.

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, forthcoming), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and numerous articles in print and online.