Stoicons Past – Impressions and Experiences from Those Who Went

Last week, I issued a call for people to contribute short pieces about their impressions of, and experiences from, earlier Stoicon conferences. These events have been held yearly in three main places – London, New York City, and Toronto – with Athens, Greece being added this year.

As the organizers for Stoicon 2019 in Athens get all the details sorted out and ticketing set up, I thought it might be interesting for our readership to hear from people who attended previous Stoicons. If there’s sufficient interest, we’ll put together a similar post of impressions and experiences of those who attended the smaller Stoicon-X events over the last few years as well!

(You can follow the Stoicon 2019 in Athens Facebook page.)

Piotr Stankiewicz – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Stoicon is absolutely great – I recommend it with all of my Stoic mind and all of my nonstoic heart. I attended Stoicons 2016, 2017 and 2018 and I harbor every intention to keep coming. Why? There is a plethora of reasons, but if you ask me to name one I will probably say something along the lines of: because of how people and ideas interact.

What does it even mean? Stoicism today is a global endeavor (our ancient predecessors would definitely approve, given their cosmopolitanism) so at the Stoicon you meet people from all over the globe. Sounds obvious but it’s still remarkable. The opportunity to meet in person people whose book you read, or folks you talked to online – is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Even in the contemporary, digital and connected world, where everything seems to be just a few clicks away, it’s still important to meet and talk face to face. Some would even say that particularly in the present world we should take care to meet in real life. More and more of our communication relies on devices, thus an actual meeting of another human becomes something to be cherished.

And not just people: ideas too. Stoicism has never been a monolithic church – diverse interpretations has always been in place. Diverse: i.e. contradictory sometimes, conflicting often. And this is something to learn first hand during Stoicon. Textbook stuff, hard facts, Marcus Aurelius’ biography – you can get to know all of that online. But Stoicon is the best to witness first hand that Stoicism is not just pale wisdom but a living and flourishing project. The discussion is going on. And it keeps attracting people. I’m hooked. Are you?

Lori Huica – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

I had been anticipating Stoicon 2018 in London for months, digesting as many classic Stoic fragments as I could, yet not fully knowing what the modern applications would be. After the initial feeling of awe at the magnitude of the event, I entered the large lecture hall where the agenda was introduced, chatted to some fellow attendees, listened to the introduction in utter elation, and thus began a year-long journey of internalising Stoic principles.

In spite of my attempts to do some thorough research before the event, the day proved to be full of entirely new learning opportunities, and every seminar and lecture I attended provided me with different concepts to grasp and apply. Two particularly memorable parts were a seminar on partenered relationships and a lecture on the link between Stoicism and sustainability. The former made me re-conceptualise the way I saw relationships, both philosophically and practically, whilst the latter was a refreshing take on environment-related issues and how philosophy might tackle these.

There were opportunities to network, as well as meet experts in the field, but for me what truly made Stoicon 2018 life-changing was the passion that all the people that had gathered at the Senate House that Saturday had for this way of living, this way of thinking. From newbies to veterans, every person in the room emanated fascination for the subject; it was this that translated into an urge to know more about what Stoicism entails, and so I did. I decided to join Stoic Week, to formally learn about Roman Stoicism as part of my degree and to really embody what it means to be a modern Stoic. Not only was it a life-changing event for me, but the daily lives of many are now impacted as I continue to embrace the philosophy and share it in whatever ways I can.

Randall Daut – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

Having been learning a bit about stoicism for 2-3 years, my wife and I decided to include Stoicon 2018 in a planned vacation to London. We both feel it was a worthy addition. Anthony Long’s reflections on the history of the resurgence of interest in stoicism were interesting as was his big picture of the important ideas in the philosophy. I liked learning about the results of stoic week as well. One notable finding was that “zest” or “great enthusiasm and energy” increased more than other variables during the week.

I enjoyed all the presentations, but I had special interest in Antonia Macaro’s comments on Stoicism and Buddhism, and I was intrigued by a presentation on sustainability and Stoic ethics. Unfortunately, I had to choose which of the breakout sessions to attend, but the choices were not overwhelming, and recordings are available. As a retired clinical psychologist, I enjoyed the recording of our local philosopher, Greg Sadler. The conference was well organized. I hope to attend another.

Travis Hume – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

I attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – my second visit to a Stoicon. I fondly remember it as a meaningful opportunity to meet with others interested in Stoicism, in addition to contemporary writers and philosophers on the subject. With each passing year, the event becomes more dynamic and engaging, with greater numbers and varieties of workshops and events; there is something suitable for anyone of any familiarity with Stoic philosophy.

I decided to go to Stoicon as part of a personal calling to learn all I could from the philosophy and others actively studying it. Each of the conversations I had at the event were meaningful, providing insight into each person’s practice and experience. The pacing and depth of each workshop and seminar was well-managed, making for constructive, fulfilling days. I easily recommend to anyone with the means to go to do so.

Mark Trumble – attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

Ever since I was a young boy I had wondered what the good was, and how to live it. At an early age I sought what the wisest men had said about it, so that I could have a better idea on how to live my life. This lead to the study of philosophy, both formally and informally, and this also lead to watching innumerable philosophy videos. If you watch videos on philosophy on youtube you cannot but help to run into Greg Sadler. After watching innumerable hours and taking some courses from him I decided to attend the Stoicon conference. I certainly wanted to meet him, as well as anyone else who was both knowledgeable academically, or who practically lived a good life. The lectures were useful in confirming what I knew, expanding and expounding what I I didn’t, and gave me direction in what to research and question further. While I was not turned instantaneously into a sage, it certainly made my path seem a little less solitary, and began to open new vistas of what a good life could look like.

Chuck Chakrapani – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Attending the Stoicon conference is an interesting experience. You get to meet like-minded people who live close to you and those who live thousands of miles away from you. Yet get to meet people who have been practicing Stoicism for fifty years and those who have been dabbling with Stoicism for five months. You get to meet the committed, and you get to meet the curious.

And then you have fascinating talks by scholars and practitioners. You have parallel sessions in which you can explore the topic that interests you more. And if you cannot get enough of it in one day, it is followed by Stoicon X the following day.

I have been attending Stoicon for the past three years and, for me, it is one of the most anticipated, ‘preferred indifferent’ events of the year!

We will be posting more information about Stoicon 2019 as it becomes available, so stay tuned. And if you can’t make the main Stoicon, keep an eye out for the smaller Stoicon-X events in different places all over the world (we’ll publicize information about those as well, as it becomes available).

The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.

My wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, and I were invited again to provide a workshop for participants at last year’s Stoicon in London. I had given workshops at the two preceding Stoicons – one on Stoicism and managing anger in 2016, and another on using Stoicism to deal with difficult people at work in 2017. That last workshop had originally been intended to have Andi and I as co-presenters, but health issues ruled out flying to Toronto for Andi, and my teaching schedule that term ruled out taking a leisurely drive up north.

Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.

We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).

I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:

I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself.  You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.

Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)

The Structure of The Workshop

Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.

Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics

  • Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
  • The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships

After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.

  • #1 – Dealing With Appearances
  • #2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
  • #3 – Determining Roles and Duties
  • #4 – Understanding Emotions
  • #5 – Virtues and Vices

We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.

This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.

So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.

What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop

One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.

Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.

There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.

Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.

Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.

The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships

The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).

As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.

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 has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Valuable Stoic Insights About Love

The Modern Stoicism organization engages in considerable work to promote understanding and application of Stoic practices and philosophy worldwide. In addition to the blog you’re reading, Stoicism Today, we host International Stoic Week (including the free course and handbook), organize the annual Stoicon, support Stoicon-Xs, carry out and report on research on Stoicism, and a number of other things.

Initiatives of this sort inevitably require some expenses and outlay, so the Modern Stoicism team (who are all volunteers) has started engaging in some fundraising and crowdfunding to support the ongoing work we do. This includes a relatively new Patreon page, on which we have started hosting exclusive content for monthly supporters.

Starting last month, we are publishing a monthly set of answers from a panel of Stoicism experts on a given question. This month the question is: What can Stoicism teach us about love? Answers were provided by Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, Massimo Pigliucci, and myself.

Here’s Christopher Gill’s response to that first question:

“I focus on a specific kind of love regarded as especially important by the Stoics; this is parental love or more broadly love for one’s family (in Greek, philostorgia). The Stoics see this as being a basic instinct in-built in all human beings (and indeed all animals), just like the instinct to preserve yourself and maintain life. (These are prime examples of the core human, and animal, motives to take care of oneself and others of one’s kind.)

In human beings, if we develop fully, this basic instinct is extended and diversified into more complex forms of social involvement and concern, including recognizing all human beings as part of a broader family, fellowship or state, in that we all share the central human capacities for rationality and sociability. But this does not mean that Stoics stop loving their children, their partners or their close friends; they see these relationships as an integral part of a wider set of connections they have reaching across humanity and indeed nature as a whole, of which human beings form a part. 

Two discourses of Epictetus are especially worth reading for this topic. 1.11 is a dialogue with a father who is so anxious about his daughter’s illness that he cannot bear to stay at home and feels he must stay away – and claims this is a ‘natural’ reaction to her illness. Epictetus argues, by contrast, that the ‘natural’ thing for a loving father to do in this situation is to stay at home and help to look after the child. The discourse explores the difference between love as a kind of irrational ‘passion’ and as an emotion or motive shaped by reason and virtue.

3.24 is a longer and more complex discourse, which includes advice about the best way to express love of one’s family (philostorgia). One – rather tough – piece of advice is that we should express our love in a way that recognizes that, in the nature of things, our relationships to our loved ones can be broken by death, one’s own or the other person’s (3.24.84-8, and in abbreviated form, Handbook 3). These passages are sometimes taken out of context as suggesting that Stoics should remain detached from loving relationships. However, taken in context, the meaning is quite different.

Stoics should live in a way that is shaped by loving concern for other people; but they need to do so in a mature, humane way that acknowledges central facts of existence such as temporary absence from those we love and indeed death.”

You can see all of the experts’ responses to this question, and those coming up every month going forward, by becoming a Patreon supporter at the “Seneca the Younger” Level. It’s a great cause – so consider making a contribution!

Call For Contributions – Impressions and Insights from Readers about Stoicons Past

As we gear up for Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week 2019, and all the Stoicon-X and other events that will be taking place later in the Fall, I thought it might be good to solicit and compile contributions from some of the many people who have attended any of the Stoicons we have held in past years, in London, Toronto, and New York. That way, those attendees could provide their impressions, insights, and other reflections to those who haven’t yet attended, but might be thinking about going to Stoicon 2019 in Athens.

If you are interested in sharing your views about your Stoicon experience here in Stoicism Today, I’m looking for short pieces ranging from 150-400 words. The piece is planned to run on Saturday, April 13, and the final deadline for consideration will be Thursday, April 11. You can email your contributions to me directly.

If you’re wondering what you might write about, here’s some useful prompts for jogging your memories and getting your creative juices flowing:

  • What were you looking forward to the most about Stoicon? Did the event measure up to your hopes or expectations?
  • What were the most valuable insights, ideas, or experiences that you took back home with you after Stoicon ended?
  • What was the most surprising thing about Stoicon for you?
  • Why did you decide to go to Stoicon? Was it worth it for you?
  • Was there anyone you were particularly keen on meeting or hearing speak? How was that for you?

Make sure to mention which Stoicon it was you went to.

I look forward to seeing what you, our readers, have to say. If we get sufficient turnout, and there’s enough interest in this topic, we’ll follow up the reader-contributed “Stoicon experience” post with one about Stoicon-X events as well!

How to Be Epictetus in the Gym by Amitabha Palmer

It’s the New Year and many people have resolved to recommit to their fitness goals. As I made my way to the gym, I wondered what Epictetus would have thought about about physical fitness and the place we ought to accord it in our daily habits. In this short article, I’ll explore answers to the preceding question and, along the way, offer some stoic-friendly fitness advice.

(For interested readers, here is How to be Aristotle in the Gym)

Epictetus and the (Non)Value of Physical Health

Why do you do something rather than nothing? The aim of all action is happiness. People find happiness in a variety of things and this explains why people pursue different things: wealth, fame, reputation, power, pleasure, etc.… But isn’t the part of life that gives us the greatest happiness when we flourish in the face of adversity?

No life is free from misfortune, chance, and adversity. But in facing such occasions we encounter opportunities to exercise and develop the genuine foundations for a stable happiness:  Strength, dignity, equanimity, composure, stability, fortitude, persistence, and courage. None of these virtues are meaningfully developed without facing some adversity. And no person can live a happy life without these traits. So, if it’s a stable enduring happiness you’re after—the Stoics council—develop your virtues.

So, what about physical health? Ought I to pursue it? It seems like it’s also part of a happy life.

No my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad.

Discourses 3. 20. 4

The Stoic view on physical health, like anything outside of your will, is that it is neither good nor bad. What matters is whether you make (virtuous) use of it and/or pursue it virtuously. A sound body enables a criminal to commit his crimes just as it enables a good person to do good deeds.

You should not pursue fitness merely for the sake of fitness. This is why the whole bodybuilding/fitness industry would be such a travesty for Epictetus. What do such lives amount to? They devoted 10s of thousands of hours to making their muscles puffy. What kind of life is that?

So, does this mean I should be indifferent about my health? No. A happy life is one in which we develop a beautiful soul. The body is the vessel of the soul and so it’s important to care for the vessel that contains it. Notice, however, that the reasons to pursue health and fitness are purely instrumental, they are not ends in themselves.

There are a few other stoic reasons for caring about your health, most of which are inherited from Socrates/Plato.

First, whatever burdens you must bear, they are more bearable to the healthy person.

And yet what has to be borne by anyone who takes care to keep his body in good condition is far lighter and far pleasanter than those things subjected to the out of shape person.

Plato, The Republic


Why even in the process of thinking and not using our body, it is a matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition loss of memory, depression and discontent often attack the mind so violently as to drive out whatever knowledge it contains.

Xenophon quoting Socrates

In short, in poor health we are more prone to bad decisions and a weakened will in the face of challenges. We are less likely to do the kinds of virtuous actions that beautify our soul. As the saying goes, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” (Quote is attributed to both George Patton and Vince Lombardi). And the unfit are easily fatigued.

Second, physical development is practice for the much more difficult task of intellectual and moral development. It also cultivates our affinity for Beauty. For that ancients, Truth, the Good, and Beauty are inextricably connected and all are required to develop a beautiful soul.  People aren’t always immediately interested in the Good or Truth; but if the three are tied together, an affinity for Beauty can draw them to the other two.

Physical beauty, however, is inferior to beauty of a soul. Having a beautiful soul requires knowing (and acting on) the True and the Good. It follows that cultivating a beautiful soul is much more difficult than developing a beautiful body. That is, is easier to get puffy muscles than it is to discover and act on moral and intellectual truth. Hence, especially for youth, it’s important that they at least have some aspiration for beauty-even if it’s initially of the inferior kind. This is a starting point to “show him the way to more appropriate objects of devotion”

Sherman, Stoic Warriors. p. 31

In Epictetus’s own words (concerning leading a youth to care for having a beautiful soul):

But if he should come to me befouled, dirty, with whiskers down to his knees, what can I say to him, what sort of comparison can I use to draw him on? For what has he ever concerned himself with that bears any resemblance to beauty, such that I can redirect his attention, and say, “Beauty is not there, but here”? Would you have me say to him, “Beauty lies not in being befouled, but in reason”? For does he in fact aspire to beauty? Does he show any sign of it? Go and argue with a pig, that he should not roll in the mud.”

Discourses 3. 23. 27.

Some Simple Advice that Would Improve Most People’s Health and Save them Money

Recall the earlier lesson that the unfit are easily fatigued, that fatigue undermines our will and judgment, which in turn interferes with developing a beautiful soul. In short, a developing a beautiful soul requires we avoid fatigue to the extent that we can.

Think of health and fitness as a three-legged table. Each leg represents one of

  • diet/nutrition, 
  • exercise, and 
  • sleep/recovery. 

If you remove one leg, the table collapses. Also, if the legs aren’t in the correct proportion, the table is unstable.

Different people struggle with different “legs,” however, I think sleep is the most often overlooked. You can do all the right exercises at the right intensity and eat all the right foods in the right amounts but if you aren’t getting enough sleep, your efforts are soon undermined. During deep prolonged sleep, your body releases hormones necessary for recovery and growth. You simply cannot recover physically (or mentally) if these hormones aren’t regularly released into your body. And, without quality sleep, these hormones will not be released into your body.

The fitness industrial complex offers no end of new supplements, magic pills, special diets, exercise plans, and exercise innovation. Some of them are useful, some of them not, most are only moderately so. But rarely do you hear about sleep, and if you do, it’s often as an afterthought.

If sleep’s as important as I claim it is, why don’t we hear about it as much as the other two legs? The answer is simple, Big Fit doesn’t make a profit off of you sleeping. They can’t sell it to you (yet!).

But now I’ve told you what they don’t want you to know. Figure out how much sleep you need and restructure your life such that you get it. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes. It blows my mind how much money people are willing to pay for supplements of questionable efficacy yet unwilling to find a way to get one more hour of sleep a night. I’d be willing to bet anything that an extra hour of sleep will do you more good for your health than all your expensive supplements combined.

“Why are you willing to pay so much for supplements?”

“Because I want to be healthy.”

“I just told you that getting an extra hour of sleep will help you much more than your supplements ever will. So, why don’t you get an extra hour of sleep instead of staying up online or watching Netflix?”

“I know but I don’t want to have to change my life.”

“Fine. Then don’t complain about your health when I’ve just told you how to improve it.” (Epictetus, The Imaginary Discourse)

Injuries and Setbacks

My first genuine interaction with Stoicism was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. My first reaction to Stoicism was to throw the book across the room.

Why? Well, you know all those annoying self-help-y aphorisms like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Every challenge presents an opportunity”? Well, the Stoics were the OG’s (original gurus) of self-help. They viewed their philosophy as being first and foremost a practical guide to living well and a means of dealing with the inevitable difficulties and misfortunes of life. There is deep wisdom in their teachings. The problem is that, after 2, 000 years of being repeated ad nauseam and out of context, they can seem like just one more vacuous platitude to scroll past in our newsfeed.

How does all this fit with the theme of this article: fitness and injuries? Let me illustrate.

Four years ago, I suffered perhaps the worst injury of my grappling career. I rolled my right ankle and tore a bunch of soft tissue. I was on crutches for 2 months, limping for a year and a half, and only recently completely pain free. I still tape my ankle every judo practice as a preventative measure.

After about 6 months of no judo, I started doing some light technique practice. Because I’d injured my dominant foot, I couldn’t practice throws to my dominant (i.e., strong) side. The only way I was going to be able to train at all is if I practiced to my weak side.

It took a full 2 years before I was able to begin training to my strong side again. By that time, my weak-side throws were better than my strong side throws. After a few months, my strong side caught up. The net result is that now I can do some throws just as well to either side.

Without getting too far into judo technique, I’ll explain why that’s such a huge advantage. To avoid a throw in judo or wrestling, you circle away from the direction of the throw. If you walk into the direction of the throw, you make your opponent’s job very easy since you are walking in the exact direction required for the throw to be successful.

So, what happens when you can throw equally well on both sides? If I attack one direction, you circle away from the throw. But circling away from a throw in one direction is also walking into the throw from the other direction. If I can throw in both directions, your defense to my initial attack actually literally walks you into my attack from the other direction.

What’s the moral of the story? The simple one is that every challenge presents an opportunity. The challenge presented to me was what very easily could have been a career-ending injury. Instead, I chose to use it as an opportunity to develop a part of my game I otherwise wouldn’t have spent as much time on. The net result was to move me another step closer to the ideal martial artist.

Think of your own injuries in the same way (And I promise, you will have injuries, whether you train or not!). Maybe you injure your shoulder or your back. Give your body a chance to heal from the initial injury, but now figure out how to train around your injury and eventually restrengthen it. This forces you to learn new exercises and improve your technique on ones you already know. Doing it imperfectly now has real consequences. The long run effect is to make you improve in ways you otherwise wouldn’t have if circumstance hadn’t forced you to.

Now, he’s where part of me wants to throw the Discourses across the room. Surely, some injuries are so bad and permanent that we will forever be impaired. An extreme example might be paralysis. What kind of asshole tells someone newly paraplegic, “hey, man, you should see this as an opportunity.” Now, just because what the stoics say isn’t true in every case, doesn’t mean it isn’t true in some cases. In my case it was true.

My own view is that, psychologically, we ought to err on the side of stoicism when we are confronted by setbacks. I think there’s much more harm in despair and giving up than there is in a mentality that seeks opportunity and growth in misfortune.

To summarize, here’s the first lesson: Learn What You Would not Have Otherwise Learned

You’re going to have setback in your fitness journey. This is the nature of life. So whachugonna do abouddit? Give up and cry like a little baby or find a way to learn and improve from it?

Moving on…

The more subtle message has to do with value. Initially–well, let’s be honest–not just initially, but for a long time, I was genuinely heart-broken by my injury. I wasn’t hopeful at all. Right before the injury, I was the best I’d ever been. I was on track to test for my black belt. I was looking forward to doing well in tournaments. I was upset because the injury interfered with realizing what I valued: belt promotion, tournaments, winning.

But the stoic is concerned with internal goods: wisdom, perseverance, composure, courage, and so on. These are the goods that make us a complete person and that most reliably contribute to living a good life. These are the fruits we ought to pursue. And I ultimately gain the sweetest fruits of all by refusing to quit and continuing to persevere in the face of misfortune:

What will you make of illness?

I will expose its true nature by outdoing myself in calmness and serenity; I will neither beg the doctor’s help, nor pray for death. What more could you ask? Everything, you see, that you throw at me I will transform into a blessing, a boon–something dignified, even enviable.

Discourse III. 21. 14-15


[Y]ou have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it. 

‘But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place? Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?

Discourses 1. 6. 28-32.

In other words, it is through the various challenges life inevitably sends our way that we most develop our virtues – the true and reliable foundations for a happy life. And who are you to think of yourself as so weak as not to be able to face such challenges?

Suck it up buttercup. You kan dou eet!

All that energy you spend complaining about your ankle, your back, your neck, etc… isn’t going to heal it. You might as well redirect your efforts toward addressing it. Wipe your nose!

Here’s the second lesson: Focus on What Really Matters

In the long run, in facing injuries and misfortune, you develop the traits that have genuine value: Fortitude, courage, perseverance, wisdom, etc…

Brace yourself: It’s not puffy muscles or being able to lift a certain amount of weight that matters for a good life. It’s the character traits you develop that allow you to manage and overcome, not only your current injuries and health problems, but future ones too.

This is another way of expressing the earlier Socratic point: Physical fitness and sports are a controlled environment for character development. In fitness/sports, more than in any other endeavor, there’s a strong correlation between effort and results. The lessons learned and traits you develop are meant to prepare you for the more difficult domains of intellectual and moral development. Intellectual and moral challenges are infinitely more demanding than any physical ones.

Too many people think puffy muscles or round booties are the final goal and despair when they’re thwarted. Such people never surpass the most basic level of development as human beings. They are incomplete human beings and they never fully achieve complete lasting and reliable foundations for a good life.

I know. It’s all so easy to say. Personal development is extremely difficult and takes time. However,

Nothing important comes into being overnight: even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe.”

Discourses 1. 17. 7.


Fact: In pursuing your fitness goals you will get injured. You will also get sick. You will get overwhelmed with work and social obligations. These will set you back. Crying about it won’t change anything. Neither will anger, sadness, nor quitting. So, whatchugonna do?

Adopt that OG (Original Guru) self-help mindset: See an opportunity to learn to train differently and improve your technique. Better yet, see this as an opportunity to develop the virtues. When you face the next inevitable setback, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.

Epictetus often compares the quest for happiness (through the exercise and development of virtuous character) to athletic competition. There are important disanalogies. First, in the contest of life we compete against ourselves, not against others. Second, we compete over and over, through repeated opportunities for achievement. We are defeated only until we decide to get back in the race. Life gives us new opportunities in which happiness may flower:

Even if we fail here and now, no one stops us from competing again, we don’t have to wait another four years for the next Olympics, but as soon as a man picked himself up and renewed his grip on himself and shown the same enthusiasm he is allowed to compete. And if you give in again, you can compete again, and if once you win, you are like someone who never gave in. Only, don’t let sheer habit make you give in readily and end up like a bad athlete going around being beaten in the whole circuit like quails that run away.

(Discourses 3. 1-5)

Jigoro Kano (founder of judo) echos something similar in this wonderful quote:

The man who is at the peak of his success and the man who has just failed are in exactly the same position: Each must decide what to do next.

Now, go work out for the right reasons!

Ami Palmer is a PhD candidate in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political epistemology and civic virtue in an environment of widespread misinformation and political polarization. He blogs at Wrestling with Philosophy and offers a free online critical thinking course at Reasoning for the Digital Age

Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 2)

Last month, we started the publication of contributions to our second online symposium here in Stoicism Today, the topic being “Women and Stoicism”. Today, to the excellent responses provided in that first post, contributed by Anitra Pavlico, Natasha Brown, and Brittany Polat, we are happy to add two new discussions of the topics by Meredith Kunz and Kathryn Koromilas. We hope to have yet more contributions coming in the third installation sometime in either April or May.

The general question proposed for this online symposium was “Is Stoicism something equally useful for men and women?” In my call for contributions, I suggested a set of more specific questions that the authors might consider addressing, which included:

  • Does Stoicism seem to appeal to men more than to women in the present?  If so, why?
  • Are there challenges women face that Stoicism would be particularly apt or helpful with?
  • Does modern Stoicism have a “women problem”, in any sense one would like to give that term?
  • What should we make of the emphasis upon traditional gender roles of some of the Stoic authors (e.g. Epictetus or Seneca)?
  • Can one be equally a feminist and a Stoic?  Are there important tensions that have to be addressed?
  • what should we make of the use of Stoic authors and texts to promote misogynist “red-pill” movements and attitudes (sometimes called “broicism”)?

So again, with no further ado, here are the next two contributions to this new online symposium. Comments are welcome, and a great way of adding to the conversation, but do make sure to give the Comments Policy a read.

Kathyrn Koromilas

2018. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the year of “angry” women, it was the year of “stoic” women. It was the year of rage, it was the year of reason. It was the season of “trivial whinging” and hysteria, it was the season of “moral outrage” and bravery. It was the winter of abuse and censor, it was the spring of hope, dialogue, and empowerment. We had 19 million women before us, roaring loud and clear: #metoo, me too, me too.

The #Metoo Movement began in 2006 as a relatively quiet campaign to encourage empathy and sharing amongst women, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, who had experienced sexual abuse. Just over a decade later, the movement erupted, when a much broader, louder, and angrier spectrum of women shared stories on social media and beyond. The movement has since produced countless written, spoken, and visual commentaries, plus a handful of full-length books which argue that anger—this dark, disorderly, and dangerous emotion—can be and ought to be harnessed as a political tool, a political emotion, and the super-powerful voice of activism. Women, now, had a moral duty to be angry.

At the same time, however, women were appearing in the public arena dressed not in armour but “wearing a stoic demeanour,” instead. Hillary Clinton was “stoic” watching the Trump inauguration. Alyssa Milano was “stoic” while watching the Brett Kavanaugh testimony. Anita Hill was “stoic” when delivering her own testimony. Uma Thurman was “stoic” when she announced her #metoo story. Olympic champion, Aly Raisman, in her own testimony, “exude[d] a level of composure that […] register[ed] as stoicism.” Australian Edith Cowan has always been a “stoic advocate for women’s rights.” Even Rose McGowan, the “fearless hero and flame-throwing narcissist,” was “stoic” during a hearing.

I don’t know about the private work these women might have done and might continue to do to make a judgement about whether their public look of “stoicism” might not, in fact, be “Stoicism,” but whatever private anger they carry, the public rhetorical force of the #MeToo movement is ordered, regulated, and controlled. More, it is based on the clearly communicated, pure in spirit, and reasonable principles of gender and social equity. Seneca would not call this “anger” at all.

According to Aristotle and Theophrastus, anger first manifests as some sort of complex bodily change that produces, unconsciously almost, a painful sensation or thought or desire. The unconscious response is the result of a feeling that some insult or injustice has occurred. The bodily response—the blood boiling and the altered tone of voice—comes before the judgement that an insult or injustice has occurred. For the untrained mind, this bodily response is almost Darwinian in its helpfulness. I remember now, as a 13-year-old, I had my first of many #MeToo moments and it was my body and senses that raised the red flag before my mind could articulate “injustice.” In my school uniform, on a crowded bus, the person behind me grabbed my bottom. Before I knew it, I’d turned around to face this person and punched him in the belly. Then, I turned back around to face the front of the bus. (Buses, injustice, and activism—there’s a theme!) It was years later, after a solid liberal arts education and after many more similar experiences, that my rational faculties caught up with a cohesive and reasonable view on the matter.

I can appreciate the Stoic’s “zero tolerance” stance on anger. We simply can’t have 13-year-old girls bearing fists on school buses! But when the stakes are so high, when there is systemic and epistemic injustice, abuse, and violence, that needs to be flagged and addressed, and if it is anger that first flags an injustice, oughtn’t we keep it? Is Stoicism then the unethical choice in our times, at least for women and their allies?

Anger is linked to activism. The motivating inception of the #MeToo Movement, for example, was found in the “deepest, darkest place” of founder Tarana Burke’s soul, presumably, the place where her anger dwells. From that same place, however, emerged a clear-headed vision for a principled programme of advocacy and change. Anger might be the enemy of reason, notes Seneca, but both anger and reason dwell in the same place.

Activist Charlene Carruthers, in a conversation with Anxy, talked about helping people use anger to fuel the activist work they do. “Not angst or anger for anger’s sake,” she clarifies, “but how do we transform that energy into something that builds?” Here, Carruthers echoes Aristotle, and Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke of organizing and uniting people “so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” In a study of the psychology of peace activists, “in one autobiography after another we find the same story—the initial action for peace and justice is motivated by anger against injustice.”

This is a familiar story and a familiar approach to anger. It is Aristotle’s. Make good use of your anger; moderate it, and direct it to the right cause, to the right persons, at the right time. Seneca’s approach to anger is also familiar. Don’t go there, resist it, it’s just too difficult to control, and your head can’t work properly if you’re angry.

Aristotle: Your head will work just fine. Just control your anger—use it as a solider not a general.

Seneca: But, if your head can control your anger, are we still even talking about anger?

Seneca thinks not. If we can control and impose limits to our anger, and then transform it to do good, moral, rational work, then it “ceases to be anger,” which Seneca understands to be “unbridled and unmanageable.”

So, maybe we just need a new word for anger. In any case, I think it’s important to keep Aristotle in the conversation here. As civic-minded souls in the contemporary world, the Aristotelian approach to anger is familiar, desirable, and legitimate. I think I am right to say that we all want the political and social freedom to express our moral outrage in a reasonable and sane way, in the right manner, to the right persons, for the right reasons. This is especially important for women right now, because for so long our emotions have been, at best, ridiculed, and at worse, demonized. Reclaiming anger is also, it seems, a way of redressing another injustice—the inequality of legitimate access to our emotional spectrum.

At the same time, we know that access to this emotional spectrum, especially that madness called anger, can be so destructive to our internal tranquility and also to the tranquility of our relationships in our social circles. Seneca makes a good point that while other vices can be “concealed and cherished in secret,” anger shows itself openly and just makes one look and sound disgusting. And there’s no shade of lipstick that goes with that. Thus, we want and must manage our anger, and of course, where it is of no use at all or where there are no rational grounds for it, banish it.

In my reading on anger, activism, and #MeToo, I was struck by the potential of a statement, made by Harvard scholar Moira Weigel, on finding anger most productive in private life. “Really private,” she said, “as an individual processing emotions. And in activist settings with feminist friends.”

This reminded me of Marcus Aurelius and all the private work he did processing his own emotions in his “notes to himself.” Over and over again, he continually writes about the same problems, anger being one of them. In the privacy of his own journal, he is able to address and re-address his Stoic convictions and control, moderate, or even banish his anger.I wonder, then, whether private Stoic practice, Stoic journal writing, or practice in small mutually supportive groups might be where the Aristotelian work of anger moderation and transformation (or, yes, even banishment) might take place. And what about activism without rage? There is a suggestion, in the article in which Weigel is quoted, that private anger, or anger expressed in small mutually supportive groups, is what is driving political change.

Meredith A. Kunz

Today, women are seeking to reverse centuries of being excluded or held back from leadership roles. From a Stoic point of view, we know we cannot snap our fingers and change externals. But we can and should acknowledge the wider context for women’s actions and choices in society.

Others’ judgments—the evaluations by hiring managers, bosses, voters, etc., that determine whether women advance—are unequally tough on women. On the one hand, we may be seen as too accommodating and nice, and therefore not leadership material. On the other hand, we may be perceived as too demanding, “bossy,” and difficult to work with.

On top of that, working women also juggle responsibilities that are not always equally shared by spouses and partners. Women shoulder much of the caretaking and the “emotional labor” of ensuring that our kids, spouses, and elders have the support and help that they need. This kind of work is exhausting in and of itself. And if we have young kids, we can find ourselves placed on the “mommy track” in professional roles, where advancement isn’t an option.

But the picture for women at work is not completely dark. We are living in an era where opportunities for women to lead have started to increase at many levels—as an employee, executive, politician, parent, volunteer, and citizen.

Stoic life philosophy teaches us that know we can’t control how others respond to our efforts to contribute to society, but we can focus on our strategies for engaging productively and living by our principles.

Growing women’s leadership co-equally involves men as they help advance women’s roles. For women to become leaders and role models at work and in government, both women and men can adopt Stoic-inspired strategies to help shape a more just future.

Here are a few Stoic-inspired ideas for empowering women in the workplace, the community, and everyday life. These are the approaches that have helped me as a professional woman:

Grow mental fortitude in dealing with criticism. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears.” Stoicism teaches its followers to ignore insults, since others’ opinions are externals that should be indifferent to us. In ancient times, philosophers subjected themselves to ridicule to cure themselves of being bothered by it. 

This is much easier said than done. Criticism often feels very personal and evokes a deep fear: “I’m not good enough.” Instead of spiraling into negative thoughts, we can recall our core principles when critiques rain down. If we know we’re making good judgments based on the virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, self-control)—if we know we are using our inborn spark of reason—we can tap into a renewed confidence.

This too is easier said than done. In a previous job, I worked on a project for an internal client. In a meeting, the client got very upset, calling the half-finished work “the worst website I’ve ever seen,” and ranting about lost time and effort. Though my blood pressure rose under the assault, I did my best to patiently discuss the limitations surrounding the project that resulted in the curtailed product. I distanced myself from a sense of injury.

Looking back, I am still amazed at that extreme reaction, and I’m glad I didn’t return the emotion in kind. The workplace is filled with many passions, and we owe it to ourselves to reject our impressions of hurt and pain.

Persevere. Stoicism teaches a discipline of “bear and forebear.” Feminists have adopted the motto, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This doesn’t mean ignoring bad behavior, but pushing forward with just principles.

Business research has indicated that women business leaders must try multiple methods to reach their goals compared with male counterparts, and many goals still prove elusive. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and continuing to develop allies along the way.

Follow your ruling center. Be unafraid to share your ideas. Another way to say this is “be yourself, even at work.” For a long time, I tried to be someone that I thought others would respect or value. I’d worry about every word and gesture, trying to guess how others were judging me and criticizing me in their heads.

After adopting my current life philosophy, things changed. Now when I’m asked for my opinion, I make a concerted effort to share honest thoughts. I can’t control how my coworkers react, but I know that from my perspective, I’m pursuing a reasonable course. Stoic thinkers emphasized expressing and living by what is just and right, even if others disagree. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”

Use reason and our sense of justice to expose and combat bias against women (and other discrimination). Justice is one of Stoicism’s core virtues. We can all keep that in mind as we look for ways to diminish unfair work practices and bias.

Some bias can be hard to spot. For example, studies have shown that bias creeps in when certain resumes have female names at the top, and others appear to be males. As soon as names are removed, judgment of the candidates becomes more fair.

I challenge everyone to notice how you treat both men and women in meetings and in interactions online. Are you listening to people of different genders and backgrounds in the same way? Are you responding in equal ways? Would you say the same comment to a man?

Another approach here is to work to elevate the women colleagues we respect into role models, inviting them to speak in front of groups, lead committees or initiatives, and become managers.

Question self-doubt, self-sabotage, and the “imposter syndrome.” Women in our culture are taught from a young age that they should be perfect, kind, and sweet beings who focus on pleasing others. Speaking up and engaging in work conflict can seem foreign and wrong. And with fewer role models and a habit of turning to others as authorities, women fear that they don’t deserve the position they are in, and that somehow people will find out that they aren’t qualified.

From a Stoic point of view, this is clearly a mistaken emphasis. But it’s hard to defeat this kind of thinking, and it affects people of all levels. It saps confidence and drive.

Stoic philosophy can be a good antidote. Stoic-inspired concepts reveal what we can and can’t control, which helps to realign our thinking, especially when coupled with cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. We can question self-doubt, perfectionism, and “imposter” thoughts, and employ more rational means to understand our strengths and skills.

Support more and better provisions for childcare. One of the most tangible ways that women’s leadership is held back is by women’s need—and their desire—to take time to give birth and raise young families. Workplaces and communities that support maternity and paternity leave, childcare benefits, and new ways to organize work for parents are desperately needed to propel women’s success in the wider world.

There’s an element of justice and fairness here too that’s not just for women, but for socio-economic reasons. Right now, only affluent families have access to the highest-quality childcare, and many parents struggle to find any kind of acceptable arrangement, even part-time. (A related note: Ideally, we should also raise the value of caring for our children by paying childcare workers better. This kind of work calls out for more funding from foundations, nonprofits, and governments.)

Many of these are systemic issues in our society. But one of the best things about Stoicism is its potential to scale. Marcus wrote, “Live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.” There will always be some nay-sayers. But if one person adopts these points of view, and then another, and another, a critical mass could start to shift. Reason- and justice-oriented concepts could lead to a broader group of people ready to do the right thing, and to reap the benefit of working with and advancing the millions of talented women in our world.

Kathryn Koromilasis a writer who leads the Stoic Writing Scene and The Stoic Writer, and participated in Stoic Week 2018. You can read her stories and find out more about her work at her website.

Meredith Kunz is a Northern California writer who works in communications in the tech industry. She is the author of The Stoic Mom blog. Follow her on Twitter at @thestoicwoman.

Valuable Stoic Insights About Death

The Modern Stoicism organization does quite a bit of work to promote understanding and application of Stoic practices and philosophy worldwide. In addition to the very blog you’re reading, Stoicism Today, we host International Stoic Week (including the free course and handbook), organize the annual Stoicon, support Stoicon-Xs, carry out and report on research on Stoicism, and a number of other things.

Initiatives of this sort inevitably require some expenses and outlay, so the Modern Stoicism team (who are all volunteers) has started engaging in some fundraising and crowdfunding to support the ongoing work we do. This includes a relatively new Patreon page, on which we have started hosting some exclusive content for monthly supporters.

Each month, we plan to publish a set of answers from a panel of experts on Stoicism to a given question, and we’re starting this month with responses to this one: “What’s the most valuable thing Stoicism teaches us about death?” Answers came in from Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson, Tim LeBon, Piotr Stankiewicz, Gregory Lopez, and Chuck Chakrapani.

Here’s Massimo’s response to that first question:

“One of the things that has always struck me as interesting about the Stoic take on death is that it is essentially identical to the Epicurean one. Despite the manifest incompatibility of the two philosophies in other respects, Seneca here sounds very much like Epicurus:

Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)

Or, as the famous Epicurean epitaph goes:

I was not;
I have been;
I am not;
I do not mind.

While Seneca rightly says that death is the ultimate test of our character, he is also correct that in a sense we “die every day.” The question, then, is how to best live our life during this ongoing process. The Stoic answer is clear:

Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet. (Letters LXXVIII.14)”

You can see all of the experts’ responses to this question, and those coming up every month going forward, by becoming a Patreon supporter at the “Seneca the Younger” Level. It’s a great cause – so consider making a contribution!

Self-Control and Optimizing Environment by Greg Sadler

In the Facebook Stoic Philosophy Group, Natasha Brown recently brought up an interesting issue that goes to the heart of matters central to Stoic philosophy and practice. Her post spurred some excellent and far-ranging discussion, and led me to set down some initial thoughts on the matter in an earlier post in my own main blog. Here’s what she wrote:

The Stoic virtue of self-control has been the one I’ve found consistently most difficult. Whether it’s continuing long-term exercise, eating healthily and so on.

I’m reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. He argues self-control isn’t sustainable, and rather we should seek to modify our environment to make it easier/more difficult to perform certain tasks. He says “make the cues of your good habits easier & the cues of your bad habits invisible,” thus, stimulating the desired behaviour. Thoughts?

I promised to discuss the issues involved in greater depth and detail in another post. Making use of my prerogative (and sometimes obligation) to regularly publish pieces here in Stoicism Today, that is what I intend to do in this post.

Natasha’s post also included a brief excerpt from Clear’s book:

Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the will-power to master your desires every time. Instead of mustering a new dose of will-power whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control.

Upon a first read, I imagine that at least for some, there are aspects or assumptions to Clear’s view that seem problematic. After all, are the challenges that we face either ones that we have to address once or twice, or those we would have to deal with endlessly, with nothing in between? Can’t we call to mind many examples where we may successfully choose over and over again to maintain a commitment, to resist a temptation, or to keep a potential frustration from upsetting us? Every time I work out at the gym, I exercise what Clear calls “will-power” far more than just twice! Most times I drive somewhere, that’s the case as well. Perhaps he’s just framing matters that way for rhetorical effect, though. Maybe he wants to stress our inability to muscle our way through every situation on sheer resoluteness of decision, or “will-power” alone.

One might also ask – and this gets us closer to why a Stoic might find his advice troubling – is it really such a stark choice we have to make between those two options? Either summon up a “new dose of will-power” each time, or instead “optimiz[e] your environment”?

What prevents us from doing both of these? There is no inherent contradiction between them. In fact, optimizing one’s environment itself requires that one exercise some “will-power”, or at least choose and act, so as to systematically change one’s surroundings.

Or perhaps there is a third option available as well? After all, when we act in accordance with a habit we have at least halfway established – a virtue, say – we have a kind of metaphorical inertia carrying us forwards. We don’t have to make a massive effort of willpower every single time, as if we were starting from the proverbial square one.

Is Environmental Optimizing Problematic?

There are a number of reasons why focusing upon improving one’s environment could seem problematic from a modern Stoic perspective.

A natural first place to focus would be on a distinction referenced in earlier Stoic (and other virtue ethics) thinkers, but which is made explicitly central by Epictetus. This is the famous “dichotomy of control,” which sets the things in our control or power, or “up to us” (ep’hemin) on one side, and the things not in our control or power (ouk ep’hemin). This is sometimes reinterpreted as a “trichotomy” by contemporary Stoics (and if you’d like to learn more about these distinctions, you might read this), but the same basic issue would arise from both distinctions.

Epictetus tells us in Enchiridion 1:

. . . in our power are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and in a word, those things that are our own doing. Those that are not under our control are the body, property or possessions, reputation, positions of authority, and in a word, such things that are not our own doing.

He tells us at multiple points that the things not in our control are externals (ta ekta) and indifferents (adiaphora). An intentional, disciplined, Stoic life requires withdrawing our desires and aversions from these matters. We ought to see that these things don’t – or at least shouldn’t – make any contribution to our happiness or misery, or any difference between an overall good moral condition or bad moral condition.

Attempting to modify one’s environment then seems like an unhealthy and ultimately unproductive preoccupation with things that shouldn’t really matter, with matters that are outside of our control. Instead of looking within ourselves, and fixing what is misoriented, damaged, or off-base there, we focus our attention on things without. And in doing so we reaffirm the mistaken perspective that those external things matter, that they determine how we think and feel. And so, we risk undoing whatever progress we are making along the Stoic path.

One could object, of course, that Epictetus didn’t tell us at all that we should totally withdraw from the world, or even our immediate surroundings, or treat external things with indifference. Instead, he wants us to place all things into their proper perspective. He tells us very explicitly that while external things might be indifferents, the ways in which we “use” or “deal with” (khresthai) those things is not indifferent, and actually matters a great deal. He also cautions against thinking that we are further along in our development than we are. So might it not be a good idea to minimize at least some of the temptations and frustrations that we might encounter?

Here is where the Stoic might shift to a different set of worries. Let’s say that one does thoughtfully examine and then make changes in one’s environment. Getting rid of desire-drawing snacks, candy, or other junk food when one has a track-record of abandoning resolves not to indulge – that might actually work. Minimizing encounters with people liable to be irritating, and eventually infuriating, so that one has fewer occasions for anger – that could help as well. Tidying up one’s domicile and decluttering so as to have a more comfortable place to live, eat, relax, and perhaps even work – that might prove calming to the passions.

But then, isn’t one taking the easy way? Isn’t there a risk of this strategy working too well? Instead of working on oneself, one invests the time, energy, and thought in altering as many other things around one as one can. Perhaps if one has money or other resources, one can actually engage others as substitutes to do that work for one. Insulating oneself away from things, persons, places, or processes likely to present challenges or obstacles seems like a kind of “cop-out”, doesn’t it?

Epictetus himself tends to speak less about the virtues and much more about the need to bring and maintain one’s “faculty of choice” (or “moral purpose”, or “will,” prohairesis) in accordance with nature (for more on that, you might read this). That faculty, which he views not only as self-determining and free, but as being at the core of who a person is (at one point he states “you are prohairesis“) is something in our control. In fact, it is how we exercise that very power.

We are supposed to be exercising it, strengthening it, reorienting it, so that we could get to the point where externals don’t upset us and don’t tempt us – or at least, if they do, we have and exercise the strength to not respond to their promptings. If we make our environment more amenable to ourselves, won’t that deprive us of occasions to develop our own capacities?

Other Stoics would frame this explicitly in terms of the virtues. Let’s clarify what is meant by “self-control”, when we are signifying a virtue by that word That’s a decent modern English translation of the Greek sophrosune, or the latin temperentia. You could also use the old-fashioned term “temperance,” or even more antiquated “continence”, or the term ” moderation” but they all name the same thing, a disposition towards controlling one’s desires, and towards feeling those desires in more measured and moderate manners.

How do we develop the virtues, and wean ourselves away from their opposites, the vices? Through the decisions we make, the actions we take, the practices and exercises we choose and commit to, the models and thought-processes we adopt. We acquire virtues by breaking habits and building new ones in their place. By shifting the focus towards our environment, and making matters easier on ourselves, we could prevent the development of the virtues.

Why develop self-control and deploy it against the temptation to indulge in late-night snacks (one of my own weaknesses, I’ll admit!), when you can simply get all of the possible snacks out of the house? Or at least make it tougher on yourself to get to them? Or whatever other environment-modifying tactic one adopts to reduce or resist the possible temptation? It seems then that this suggestion would be deeply at odds with the approach Stoics should take and apply.

Why A Stoic Should Consider Optimizing

I regularly read discussions in Stoicism-oriented social media, and I see a number of commonly recurring misunderstandings arising with great regularity. One broad class of these involves taking some Stoic doctrine or maxim, and pushing it to the point of generating confusions, precisely because the person doing so doesn’t set it within the larger context of Stoic philosophy. Seneca cautions against this:

you must give up hope that you will ever be able to take just a quick sampling from the works of the greatest men. You must read them as wholes, come to grips with them as wholes. The subject matter is treated along the lines that are proper to it, and an intellectual product is devised from which nothing can be removed.

Letter 33

While a person certainly can parse out little catch-phrases and sound-bites of Stoic philosophy, what they end up with is not Stoicism as the coherent system it is, but just fragments, liable to mislead. Or more correctly, liable to be used by the dabbler to mislead him or herself. So that’s one commonly arising issue.

Another one stems from the assumption that Stoicism is something that one turns on or off like a light-switch. You’re either entirely Stoic, or you’re not Stoic at all. Quite a few people claiming to speak for Stoicism criticize others for not being Stoic enough, or not being real Stoics (I’ve seen poorly informed posters do this even with Donald Robertson in the very Facebook group Natasha’s post is in!)

Stoicism is not just for the legendary “sage” or ideally wise and virtuous person. It is for the prokopton, the person who is “making progress” – something that typically does not follow a nice, neat linear progression, but as Epictetus tells us, involves getting back up after we have been thrown down. Just reading around in the available classic Stoic literature, you’ll find plenty of advice and discussions about how to recover and learn from failure, to follow through on that difficult-to-sustain commitment to improve oneself, to steer oneself back into the right track.

Until we are sages, we will always have to struggle. In fact, there is a certain sort of foolishness – the opposite of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis) involved in overestimating one’s own present capacities to live, think, and act like a Stoic. The same sort of foolishness underlies giving other people advice that takes no stock of the limited capacities they have for following the lines set out by Stoic philosophy.

It’s quite true to say, along with Epictetus, that “Socrates didn’t give in to X”, and to then draw a conclusions that I don’t have to either. We often labor under mistaken assumptions that we have to respond to things in certain ways, that they make us feel, think, choose, or act what we do. It is a powerful and liberatory insight to realize that by choosing – and then by making that choice repeatedly until it becomes a habit – we can do otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean that, in every single case, we really can in that moment not respond to externals in ways that are counterproductive. Don’t we experience a failure to follow through on our good intentions at some times? Don’t we manage to resist, to endure, to persevere, up to a point, and then you find ourselves with our reserves exhausted? Of course we do, and that’s precisely because we’re not entirely – perhaps not even half-way – where we ought to be. Recognizing that, rather than pretending it is not the case, is integral to making further progress!

So what do we do with that recognition? Here is where the would-be Stoic, the Stoic in-development, has the opportunity to further practice and develop prudence. When you join a gym, intending to get back into shape, and start lifting weights, it would be foolish to try to lift the same amount of weight as the people who have been lifting for years. You take stock of the body you have, you look at its weak points and any injuries, and you start out with the lighter weights. And then you keep at it. Eventually you can start to up the amount, of weight, of reps, or of sets. You can add new exercises. You can lengthen your workouts.

We should look at Stoic practice, at facing temptations, frustrations, and challenges, and at development of the virtues in a similar way. For the time being, for some of us, changing our environment in ways that allow us to start making fairly continual progress makes good sense. We have to start with the faculty of choice we actually possess – and it’s quite likely weaker and in worse condition than we’d like to admit – and use that very faculty to improve itself.

There is much more that could be said about this topic, but I’m going to bring this to a close with one final thought. For most of us, even if we do manage to minimize some of the aspects of our environment that make it more difficult for us to make the right choices and to follow through on commitments, it’s unlikely that we will have thereby deprived ourselves from opportunities to encounter difficulties and to deal with them using Stoic practices and insights. Precisely because the environment does remain outside our control, no attempts to fix it are going to permanently banish problems.

And if you find yourself actually yearning for more troubles to face down, more temptations to resist, more discomforts, more irritations – if you’ve made enough progress to feel like you can take on more figurative weight – then you can certainly choose to engage with them more. You won’t have far to go!

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 has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

The Stoic and the Chess Player by Doug Bruns

Keep your philosophy ready.

Marcus Aurelius

My granddaughter, aged 8, is keen on chess. Maybe obsessed is a better word. She has beat her father a couple of times, and challenges me to better focus when we play. Recently, we were playing and she said, pointing, “I wish my queen was here rather than there.” I start each day with a stoic aphorism. It’s something I reflect on throughout the course of my day. When Margot said this, I reflexively paraphrased that day’s adage, “It’s better to wish for what is, than hope for what is not.” Her father turned, sporting a sly grin, and said, “The old philosopher has spoken!” My granddaughter screwed up her face and gave me one of those looks. I’m sure you can picture it.

I mention this because my response to her surprised many in the room, me most of all. I was, of course, paraphrasing Epictetus:

Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to, but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right.

How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Epictetus, Translated by A.A. Long (Princeton University Press, 2018) p. 17.

We have been working our way through the Enchiridion at our local stoa here in Baltimore and had recently discussed this teaching. Aside from being profound advice, the passage resonated with me for it’s literary brevity and poetic symmetry. I always respond with attention when ideas and words align in beautiful ways. But more to the point, my reflexive response to Margot suggested that my stoic studies were taking root, that the ideas had unpacked their bags and begun setting up house. They were becoming residents of my being–my philosophy was becoming a way of life.

When I was practicing Zen Buddhism our teacher exhorted us to consider enlightenment with all seriousness. The wisdom of enlightenment was possible, he taught. We studied the lives and teachings of the ancient masters with a keen eye to the path. I bring that attitude to my stoic practice, and although I acknowledge that sagehood is an aspiration only, I’m nonetheless on the lookout for indicators that I’m moving in the right direction. Granted, perhaps spewing philosophical aphorisms points more to an annoying trait of character than wisdom taking hold; but I wish to believe that a subtle shift has occurred.

Further, it is not lost on me that my position on this speaks to the passage cited directly: Am I asking for a semblance of stoic wisdom because I would like it so, or am I wishing for the thing as it actually is? Regardless of that (somewhat) rhetorical question, I find encouragement in the writing of Pierre Hadot:

The goal is to reactualize, rekindle, and ceaselessly reawaken an inner state which is in constant danger of being numbed or extinguished. The task – ever renewed – is to bring back to order an inner discourse which becomes dispersed and diluted in the futility of routine.

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) p. 51.

I am aware that Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were personal exhortations to “reawaken an inner state.” My advice over the chess board to my granddaughter suggested that at that precise and present moment my inner state was awake. My personal capacity for “meditation” was functioning and seeking an opportunity be to exercised. I know this is a minor thing in the grand scheme, but I find it encouraging, nonetheless. A natural response without cogitation is a degree of flow, as it were, a state of being – or in stoic terms, a natural accordance with nature. I’m on the lookout for such little things. As Marcus wrote:

…reflect on the fact that what results from this tiny thing is no tiny thing at all!

Meditations, 9.29

My path to this place is, in my experience, somewhat unique. On my eighth birthday, while walking across backyards to my best friend’s house, a curious thought struck me: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? I have shared this story with many over the ensuing years, and more than a few have suggested that I was a curiously morbid little bugger. Such a thought at eight years old! Perhaps I was, but I don’t really think so.

Regardless, I’ve wondered many times over the years where that question –If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? – came from? There was no trauma in my life, no death in the family. As best I can piece together, it was seeing images from Vietnam on the evening news. Young men at war. It was a frightening prospect, an existential awakening. Ever mindful of the tragic events of that period I am, nonetheless, forever grateful for what unwittingly I learned then. Life is not simple and possibly short, be mindful of it, pay attention to it. My eight year-old self had stumbled upon a theme that was to steer the course of my life. It was my childhood premeditatio malorum moment.

College found me pursuing philosophy, but to the best of my recollection I took no classes that introduced me directly to the stoics. Aside from the necessary introductory requirements my interest lay largely in American philosophy, the transcendentalists and the pragmatists specifically. Stoicism came up on my radar many years later and I have Montaigne to thank for the introduction. Montaigne to Epictetus is a circuitous path, aside from the great philosopher’s quote the French master had inscribed above his writing desk, “That which worries men are not things but that which they think about them.” Montaigne is forever more the skeptic than the stoic, but still the influence is there and it caught my attention.

Yet, it wasn’t until Stoic Week 2016 that I made a conscious effort to learn more. As I page through my journal for that week, I smile at the now familiar themes: What is within our power? Self-discipline and Stoic simplicity; The Stoic Reserve Clause; Stoic Mindfulness; Stoic Philanthropy; The View From Above, and so on. These were fresh and new approaches just two years ago, but now the concepts seem like old friends. They have become, as I noted above, a part of my core being, a way of life.

My eight year-old self was challenged: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived, or will it have been wasted? More than five decades later I would read a response in Marcus Aurelius (quoting Plato):

A real man should forget about living a certain number of years…and turn his attention to how he can best live the life before him.

Meditations 7.45

I am fortunate that the kid back then didn’t wait around for an answer but went looking for it. My definition of how best to live took many forms over the ensuing years. However, I innately sensed that the answer was not to be found “out there.” My most important and insightful attempts to answer the question have always been internal. My youthful goal of a life of philosophical scholarship was derailed. Life and family obligations shifted my focus while simultaneously affording me other opportunities for reflection and growth. Regardless of the path, however,  I chose to live as a philosopher, albeit unwittingly so most of the time. To quote Hadot again:

a philosopher in antiquity was not someone who wrote philosophical books, but someone who led a philosophical life.”

The Inner Citadel,p.61

To which I reply, this modern philosopher is happy to wish for what is, and is indifferent to all the rest, regardless of the path taken to this place.

Postscript: My granddaughter did not win the game I mention above. But she did put me in check before I gave her no escape, upon which she again, screwed up her face and gave this old philosopher the stink eye. Check mate.

Doug Bruns is a reader, writer, thinker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses to: having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; missing the summer lakes of his youth, and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. You can find more of his writing on Medium. His blog, “the house I live in” can be read here.

How to Develop Virtue in a Stoic Way by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

Tim: Hi Chris, I’d really value the opportunity to pick your brains about the Stoic line on virtue, and particularly on the question how to develop virtue if I want to do so in a Stoic way.

Before we do that it is important to set the scene by saying a bit about two other approaches. I’ll start with what I will call the Positive Psychology view of virtue.  Positive Psychology is a branch of contemporary psychology begun in 1998 by Martin Seligman and it devotes a lot of attention to virtues and their development. Seligman, Peterson, and colleagues undertook multi-disciplinary research on character strengths, resulting in the VIA Character Strengths Classification.

The VIA identifies 6 virtues and 24 character strengths. Each virtue is said to comprise of a number of more specific strengths, for example the virtue of wisdom consists of the strengths of curiosity, perspective, love of learning and creativity and judgement.  In order to flourish, people are encouraged to identify their top strengths and use them in new ways. For example, someone with a love of learning might watch a Ted Talk every day and approach every problem by thinking ‘how can my love of learning help me here?’. 

Positive Psychology also encourages people to develop the virtues in general (as well as their top strengths) and psychologists have researched how to do this. A notable example is Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, a book which gives a psychological framework for understanding self-control and provides some evidence-based ways to develop it. Whilst some psychologists, such as Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe, argue for the interdependence of the virtues and the importance of wisdom, it would be fair to say that this is not a majority view in positive psychology.

A second well-known view of the virtues is that of Aristotle and his followers.  Unlike most contemporary psychologists, Aristotle argued for the unity of the virtues, meaning that if you truly have one virtue you have them all. Aristotle divided virtues into the ethical virtues, that is, virtues of ‘character’ (ēthos), including the well-known virtues of courage, temperance and justice and other virtues such as magnanimity (having the right attitude about honour), and intellectual virtues, broadly divided into theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronēsis).

Aristotle famously argued for a theory of the mean regarding the ethical virtues, the mean being determined by phronēsis. For example, the courageous act is not necessarily half-way between the rash and the cowardly act; it is what the person of practical wisdom sees as the appropriate act in the specific situation. According to Aristotle, virtue is developed by habituation. You become courageous, for example, by performing courageous acts. He did not however, specify in much detail exactly how you could develop the virtues, devoting more attention to their classification.

In short Positive Psychologists see the virtues as separate and independent and focus on developing them through evidenced-based methods and do not place more importance on wisdom than the other virtues.  Aristotle saw the virtues as closely interconnected, being united by practical wisdom (phronēsis), which is thus for Aristotle a very important quality to develop.  To my mind, at least, Aristotle provides frustratingly little detail about how to develop phronēsis and the other virtues. Where would the Stoics stand here compared to positive psychologists and Aristotle?

Chris: The Stoics are much closer to Aristotle than Positive Psychology in their overall theory of virtue. They stress the unity or interdependence of the virtues more than Aristotle does. Some Stoics see all the virtues as subdivisions of wisdom, others see the virtues as interdependent (you cannot have one without having the others), so wisdom is necessary on either view. But the Stoics do not subdivide virtues into ethical ones (virtues of character) and virtues of intellect. The virtues involve the personality as a whole, including both rational and emotional dimensions. All the virtues are seen as forms of knowledge or expertise (skill in living life well), but they also shape our emotions and desires.

The Stoics also stress much more than Aristotle the idea that virtues fall into four main groups, that is, the four cardinal virtues (wisdom – both practical and theoretical – courage, justice and temperance or moderation). These virtues map the four main areas of human experience: gaining knowledge and reasoning well, facing dangers and difficulties, relating to other people, and dealing with emotions and desires. These four cardinal virtues have many subdivisions; these subdivisions are rather like the ‘strengths’ of the Positive Psychologists, except that they are also virtues and not different in kind from them. Here’s a rough outline of the Stoic theory of virtue – see what you think about that and then we can go on to discuss Stoic views on how we develop these virtues.

Tim:  I think I’m clear about the difference between the Stoic and contemporary Positive Psychology positions, less so on that between Aristotle and the Stoics. An example may help here. Suppose I am in a meeting and have a view that may be unpopular but is also important to consider. It would be cowardly to say nothing but perhaps rash to rudely and bluntly tell everyone they are wrong. I would need practical wisdom to determine the timing and  wording  of my intervention. So the courageous person doesn’t just overcome fear, he or she does so in a wise (and morally good) way.  How if at all would the Stoic view differ?

Chris: The differences between the Aristotelian and Stoic views of virtue are not substantial in a case like this (though there are differences). For both approaches, acting virtuously involves wisdom in some sense: for the Stoics wisdom is seen as built into all the virtues, whereas for Aristotle practical wisdom is a separate skill (though it is needed for the exercise of character virtue). So for both thinkers virtue involves a kind of expertise that we need to learn. Aristotle sees a virtuous act as ‘hitting the mean’ between two extremes (in your example, between cowardice and rashness) whereas the Stoics do not think in these terms. For them, virtue is just ‘getting it right’, and vice ‘getting it wrong’.

The main difference is that the Aristotelian courageous person – in this case or more extreme ones – has to overcome a fear she feels. The Stoic virtuous person does not have the ‘passion’ (bad emotion) of fear, because she does not regard danger or death as, in themselves, ‘bad’ things. This is the whole point of the distinction the Stoics draw between virtue and indifferents, which is also linked with their understanding of emotions. But as you will recall from our dialogue about indifferents, the Stoics do draw a distinction between ‘preferable’ and ‘dispreferable’ indifferents. So they too would regard a dangerous situation as one which we find naturally ‘dispreferable’ – they do not risk their lives thoughtlessly. But in a situation where the wise person is sure she needs to take the risk, she will do so without fear.

Coming back to your example, the Stoic and Aristotelian virtuous person would act in the same way, but would think about the situation rather differently. And if the Stoic person felt it was right to tell people they are wrong, she would not need to overcome fear to do so.

Tim: So in the example of courage we are discussing, the Aristotelian ‘feels the fear and does it anyway’ whereas the Stoic does not feel fear. I wonder if this difference applies to temperance, justice and wisdom as well? With temperance, Aristotle is in line with the Stoics in saying that the truly virtuous person will not have to overcome temptation. However Aristotle has another category, the self-controlled person, who is not fully virtuous but is better than the vicious person. To take the case of someone who has decided on moral grounds to become a vegetarian. An Aristotelian fully virtuous temperate person would not even feel tempted to eat meat, whereas the self-controlled person might well feel urges to have a tasty burger but would overcome these urges.  What would the Stoics say about these two cases?

Chris: The Stoics would agree with Aristotle about temperance: the Stoic temperate person (like the Aristotelian) simply does not want to eat meat if she is convinced this is wrong. But there are some related differences. The Stoics see all the virtues as similar to temperance in this respect, even courage. The Stoic virtuous person does not experience any of the feelings (‘passions’, such as fear) that run counter to her principles. Also, according to the Stoics, Aristotle’s self-controlled person is not virtuous at a lower level, as she is for Aristotle, but lacking in virtue. However, she may be regarded as wanting to make ‘progress’ towards virtue (having virtue as her aim); this idea of progress is a very important one for the Stoics and for virtually all of us, ethical life operates at this level.

Tim:  OK, how about justice?  You said earlier that for the Stoic this is about relating well to other people? Would there be differences in the Aristotelian and Stoic view on justice?

Chris: I think for both theories, justice (as a virtue of people) centres on giving people their due, and that, for both theories, the just person is someone who wants to do that (not someone who makes himself act justly against his inclinations). However, justice, in Stoicism is one of the four generic or cardinal virtues and it includes (as a subdivision) the virtue of generosity that Aristotle sees as an independent virtue, as well as other qualities concerning human relationships.

Tim: Finally let’s come back to wisdom. We’ve already talked about how the Stoics see wisdom as shaping our emotions and desires rather than just being an intellectual quality. Is this the main difference between the Stoics and Aristotle regarding wisdom?

Chris: It’s a bit more complicated than that. Different Stoics have slightly different views on wisdom: some thinkers see all virtues as subdivisions of wisdom (so on this view, ‘wisdom’ is equivalent to ‘virtue’); others regard all four cardinal virtues as interdependent, but still see wisdom as the leading virtue. However, for virtually all Stoic thinkers, wisdom is both practical and theoretical (not divided into two as in Aristotle). So the wise person, the Stoic ideal figure, does everything well, whether it’s going to a party, ruling a state, or working out a logical argument. Wisdom consists in knowing how to live well, in every possible human situation. If you are wise you will also have the other virtues, including courage and temperance, and so you will have feelings and desires in line with correct principles. So wisdom is a unitary kind of virtue – not subdivided between ‘character’ virtue and ‘intellectual’, or between ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’, as in Aristotle. Of course, again, wisdom is an ideal; we are all working towards wisdom, aiming to make progress towards reaching it.

Tim: Thank you Chris. So the Stoic sees virtue as combining ideal thinking, feeling and behaviour. Seneca said that a fully virtuous person (the Stoic sage) ‘springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.’ (Letter 42.1). So it’s reassuring to hear you say that the Stoics place value on making progress towards virtue. Assuming that someone reading this article is fully on board with Stoic ideas but recognises they are not yet fully virtuous, how do they go about making progress towards virtue?

Chris: Well, as with the earlier question about virtue, it’s useful to put the Stoic view in a larger context, by contrast with Aristotle, or a modern thinker like Alasdair MacIntyre who adopts an Aristotelian approach. Aristotle and MacIntyre would say you develop the virtues by living in a good society and that you build up the virtues, in the first instance at least, by absorbing the values built into the life and discourse of your family and community. If you are not fortunate enough to live in a good society there is a real question whether you can in fact develop the virtues.

The Stoics also think that we are influenced by our social context, in good and bad ways. But, unlike Aristotle (and MacIntyre) they believe that ‘all human beings have the starting-points of virtue’, as they put it. The capacity to develop the virtues is built into our make-up, regardless of the social context we live in (though this is obviously going to be more difficult in some societies than others). We have an in-built capacity to form ideas such as good or just. And we have the ability to interpret our social context selectively, so that we can identify what is and not virtuous. So this is a start in answering your question.

Tim: That all sounds very promising. But in that case, why isn’t everyone fully virtuous, according to the Stoics, and why is the wise person such a rare phenomenon?

Chris: To understand their view, we have to take account of two important features of their thinking: their ideas about development as ‘appropriation’ and about the sources of corruption. According to their theory of development, human beings are instinctively inclined to want things that enable them to lead a full human life, things such as health, property, social stability and status. However, if they develop ethically (again, seen by Stoics as a natural process), they come to realize that their happiness in life depends not just on acquiring such things but on doing so in an excellent or expert way.

In other words, they realize that happiness consists not just in gaining these things but doing so virtuously, exercising the four cardinal virtues and their subdivisions. They also recognise that things such as health and property are ‘preferable indifferents’; they are things we naturally want to have but they do not make the difference between happiness and unhappiness, whereas the virtues do (this is what we have discussed in the dialogues on ‘indifferents’).

Well, if this is the ‘natural’ way for human beings to develop, why don’t we all achieve virtue or wisdom and happiness automatically? The Stoics identify two major sources of corruption, which stop this process happening in most cases.

The most important one is that we are not just instinctively attracted to things such as health and property, but inclined (naturally, again) to want them too much and in the wrong way. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are good in themselves and form the basis of happiness or the good life, and failing to make the further move of recognising that they are indifferent or neutral in this respect and that real happiness depends on gaining these things virtuously (and in no other way).

The second source of corruption is that we tend to be influenced by those around us, including parents, teachers, and friends, who have already formed mistaken views about these things. Taken together, these factors counteract what the Stoics see as the natural way for human beings to develop and block our forming the virtues.

Tim: Well, this seems pretty bad news for people wanting to make progress towards Stoic virtue. Is there anything we can do about this situation and do the Stoic thinkers offer any guidance to help us become better people?

Chris: Emphatically – ‘yes’ to both questions. The Stoics believe that the capacity to make progress is in-built in all human beings, and throughout their lives. Nobody is seen as irredeemably corrupt or as incapable of improvement. And much of the surviving Stoic writing on ethics is directed at offering guidance to enable progress. This is another point of contrast with Aristotle.

You commented earlier that Aristotle has, frustratingly, little specific guidance on developing the virtues. This is partly because he thinks that, to develop virtue, you need to have been brought up in the right kind of social context and so you will already have a pre-theoretical grasp of what counts as virtuous, and philosophy just enables you to analyse what you have already grasped. The Stoics think that we all have the ability to learn how to live virtuously (and so happily) and that virtually all of us need to go on learning – making progress in understanding virtue – throughout our lives. Stoic writings on ethics, especially the more practically oriented writings, are designed to help us to make this progress.

Tim: What writings do you have in mind, then, and how do they promote self-improvement?

Chris: Cicero’s On Duties is a good example, written in three sections (we call them ‘books’). In Book 1 Cicero discusses the four cardinal virtues in general terms – as Aristotle does in his writings on ethics. But he also provides much more specific guidance than Aristotle on the kind of actions which express the different virtues, drawing on Stoic writings, historical examples and his own experience. This is a typical Stoic method, described by Seneca as a combination of doctrines and guidance (Letters 94 and 95). We find this combination of doctrines and specific guidance, in different forms, in practical ethical writings by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, for instance.

Tim: OK – I can see that providing detailed guidance is more helpful than just giving generalised accounts of the virtues. But I don’t quite see how this guidance is linked with specifically Stoic ideas about ethical development.

Chris: As we discussed earlier, Stoics think we are naturally disposed to go for things such as health and property (which enable us to live full human lives); but we are also naturally inclined to value them too much and in the wrong way. This prevents us from developing the virtues – that is, learning how to acquire health, property, and social position in the right way (that is, in line with wisdom, courage, justice and temperance), and thus to live the best possible human (and happy) life. So Stoic ethical writings, in different ways, aim to counteract this mistake, and try to enable us to give things such as health and property their proper value (as preferred indifferents) and not regard them as good in themselves (which the virtues are).

Cicero’s On Duties Book 1 offers a kind of sketch of what it means to lead a full human life in the right way (in line with the four cardinal virtues). And Book 2 provides a picture of how to acquire ‘preferred indifferents’ (the main focus is on social status) in a way that is consistent with practising the virtues. In Book 3, Cicero deals with the problem of how to deal with situations where these two types of value (acting virtuously and acquiring things such as property and social status) come into conflict, and we have to choose between them. He explores a series of practical situations of this kind; the overall message is that, in all such cases, we should always act according to the virtues (as we understand these), even if this means that we have to give up things (such as money or social status) that we might otherwise be inclined to go for. If we are properly motivated, Cicero stresses, there is no real choice between these two things – but, given the weakness of human nature, and the fact that we are still ‘making progress’, there can seem to be scope for a moral dilemma. So On Duties as a whole is a kind of guidebook for Stoic practical ethics.

Tim: That’s really interesting – I must take a closer look at On Duties. But I know Epictetus much better than Cicero, who wasn’t actually a Stoic, I gather, though he sometimes presents Stoic ideas – how does Epictetus contribute to this project?

Chris: Actually, Epictetus is rather unusual among Stoic ethical thinkers in that he does not have much to say about virtue, happiness or ‘indifferents’ – at least not explicitly. However, he may be aiming to support the same Stoic framework of ideas from a new angle. For instance, one of his most common themes is the importance of drawing a sharp distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’, and of focusing our attention on what is up to us.

This may be intended as a new way of presenting the standard Stoic idea that we are all capable of ethical development (of making progress) and that this is what matters most in life, whereas happiness does not depend on gaining things such as property and health (which he sometimes calls ‘externals’). However, in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, thinkers who also lived, like Epictetus, in the first and second centuries AD, we find many references to the same framework of ideas we find in Cicero’s On Duties and the same view of what is involved in ethical development.

Tim: And where would the approach taken in Stoic Week and SMRT fit into this? In Stoic Week, participants are invited to do ‘Stoic Meditations’ such as the morning pre-meditation of adversity, the View from Above, the Circles of Hierocles and the evening Stoic review of the day. Many of these are supported by audio recordings.  Are these to be viewed as ‘reminders’ of virtue? Or are they more than this?

For example, one might think that the evening review of the day helps partly because it embeds the theoretical knowledge of what is good (for example, helping one’s friends) with a practical situation (for example how to handle a meeting with a friend tomorrow). In short, I am wondering whether there is a third route to developing Stoic virtue, as well as reading about theory and detailed guidance, namely daily reflection of the kind suggested in Stoic Week?

Chris: The practices we suggest in Stoic Week and SMRT are, certainly, based on methods suggested by Stoic thinkers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. However, I don’t think that the Stoics would see them as reminders of virtue or ways of applying knowledge you already have to a specific situation. Remember that the Stoics don’t think we actually have virtue – we are working towards this, trying to make progress in this direction. So the daily reflection and meditations used in Stoic Week are meant to be ways of helping us get to a better understanding of what the virtues involve for us in specific real-life situations and relationships. Stoic guidance is not designed to give us precise rules and instructions about what to do or think but to encourage us to develop our in-built capacity to become a better person and manage our own lives.  

Tim: Finally, I’d like to come back to Positive Psychology and its potential value and limitations from a Stoic perspective. We said earlier that like Aristotle, the Stoics place a much higher value on wisdom than the other virtues, indeed some Stoics see all virtues as being a subdivision of wisdom. Where then does that leave the empirically-based tips suggested by Mischel about willpower and self-control (and other contemporary psychologists about how to develop the other virtues)

Three key ideas coming from contemporary psychological research about self-control are: (1) to ‘nudge’ the environment in the direction that is best for you (rather as Ulysses did to deal with the Sirens); (2) to distract ourselves from the temptation (as many of the self-controlled children did in Mischel’s famous ‘Marshmallow Test’); and (3) to remind ourselves of our long-term goals, preferably in a vivid manner so that our ‘hot’ emotional part of the brain comes on line.  

For example, suppose my cholesterol level is somewhat high and I make a New Year’s Resolution to stop eating doughnuts, which I am very partial to. If I was to consult Mischel, I might combine changing my route to work so I do not pass the cake shop (tweaking the environment) with reminding myself of my long-term goals in a vivid way, perhaps by imagining my doctor giving me a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes and then me having to tell this to my family. What would the Stoics say about such advice?  Would it be seen as making progress towards virtue? Or does it miss the point, because even if my actions would look more like that of the virtuous person – not eating doughnuts –  I have not fully integrated wisdom into my desires and emotions and so am just as bad as someone, like say Homer Simpson, makes no effort?

Chris: I think your last suggestion pinpoints the worry that a Stoic might have about these methods. They seem, in general, designed to try to change behaviour without changing beliefs, attitudes, emotions or desires – at least, if they aim to change these it is in a very indirect way. I think the Stoics believe that you can bring about change in a more up-front and direct way by thinking about what we really believe and value and by working on putting this into practice. This doesn’t mean the methods are purely rational and avoid any emotional dimension. Stoics might recommend forming a vivid picture of what it means to lead a healthy and active life (in your example) and forming an equally vivid picture of the consequences for health, physical appearance, activity and relationships of not doing so.

Seneca has a lot of advice about forming these kinds of negative pictures of the passion of anger in On Anger, and some of the pictures he paints are pretty lurid. The Stoic approach to training oneself is much more explicit and conscious than the one you describe – but I think it can be highly effective. If you really want to be vegetarian (one of your earlier examples), a Stoic would remind herself of the reasons for doing this (for the environment, for instance) – and lots of people are actually doing this now and changing their behaviour accordingly.

Tim: I’m really interested in what you say here. People might well get the impression otherwise that the Stoics recommend an overly intellectual and rationalistic approach. A caricature of the Stoic approach might be: ‘All you need to do is read the Stoics and you will be virtuous’. Now our evidence from Stoic week does not support this view. People who say that they know a lot about Stoicism are not particularly happy or flourishing (as measured by our scales). However, people who actually are progressing well towards being Stoic (as measured by SABS) are happier. So the question becomes – how do you move from knowing a lot about Stoicism to be able to put Stoic ideas into practice with some consistency? 

From our discussion it sounds as though there might be three key elements. First, we should think in some depth about the virtues and what they involve for the way we live our lives, and reading and reflecting on Cicero’s On Duties can help here.

Secondly, we can use the kind of exercises suggested in Stoic Week to help us to get a better understanding of what the virtues mean in specific real-life situations. For instance, we can use the morning meditation to imagine adversities and think how we can overcome them virtuously, and we can use the evening meditation to review our day and reflect on what we did well (i.e. virtuously) and what we can do better.

Would I be right in saying that a third method is to fully engage emotionally with what being virtuous means and also to have a strongly negative attitude to vice or passion? Seneca’s asking us to be aware of what we look like when angry would be an example of this – and so, I think would be my example from Mischel and Positive Psychology of imagining me having to tell my family that my doughnut-eating had led to a serious health problem?

Chris: Yes, I think that is right. The first two are clearly part of Stoic ideas about becoming a better person. And I think would agree with the third point too (this is one aspect of the Positive Psychology approach that is close to Stoic ideas). The Stoics stress very much the role of motivation in ethics and of engaging fully with the ideal of virtue and working whole-heartedly towards it. Stoic ethical writings are full of pictures of the ideal wise person or of near-wise exemplars; and there are also powerful negative images too, especially in the writings on passions. If we are to become virtuous we have to want this more than anything else; of course, wanting is not enough, but without this there is no real chance of making progress. What Stoicism commends is not a cold rationalistic attitude but a unified and coherent one, in which well-judged beliefs and understanding bring with them a consistent and unwavering emotional strength and integrity. And developing the virtues is a matter of making progress towards this goal.

Tim: I wonder if this discussion allows you to comment on the list that we produced from the recent Stoic Week report on what people intended to do to maintain their Stoic practice after Stoic week.  These are some of participants’ recommendations

  • Daily Stoic Meditation (specifically the morning and evening Meditations)
  • Read the main original Stoic texts
  • Do Stoic Week again on my own initiative
  • Speak to partner and friends about Stoicism
  • Watch You tube videos or podcasts about Stoicism regularly
  • Daily reflection and/or journaling of my progress in Stoicism
  • Focus on specific aspects of Stoicism such as the virtues and the dichotomy of control
  • Use the self-monitoring sheet from Stoic Week
  • Download the audios from Stoic Week and listen to them
  • Read modern books on Stoicism
  • Practice the ‘sage on my shoulder’ technique regularly
  • Do the View from Above meditation and reflect on our place in the universe
  • Set reminders (e.g. on phone) to do my Stoic Practice and of key Stoic teachings (daily or weekly)
  • Set aside time for regular practice, prioritise it

Are all of these good ideas? Should people give priority to some of them more than others in order to become virtuous in a Stoic way?

Chris: Well, actually, these all seem like pretty good ideas to me. It’s really a matter of whether people feel they want to get a better grip on Stoic ideas and theories or whether they feel the need of more practical means of putting this into practice. I would think a combination of building up a set of regular Stoic practices and reading original Stoic writings or modern books on them would be a good pattern for most people.

Tim: I feel we have covered a lot of ground. Not only the initial question, which a lot of people ask once they know a bit about Stoicism and the central role of virtue, about how to be more develop virtue, but also the similarities and differences between the Aristotelian and some contemporary psychological views. Thank you very much, I hope it is as useful to readers as I am sure it will be to me.

Chris: I feel I have learnt a lot too from trying to answer your questions – some quite challenging ones – and hope readers find our exchange useful in trying to put Stoic ideas into practice.

Some relevant reading:

Ancient writings:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (many translations), especially book 2, chapter 1, book 10, chapter 9.

Cicero, On Duties, translations by M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins (Cambridge University Press), and P. G. Walsh, (On Obligations – the same work, Oxford World’s Classics).

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press), sections 57-61, 66.

Modern scholarship:

J. Sellars, Stoicism (University of California Press), ch. 5.

J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford University Press), ch. 2.

Greg Sadler has recorded a series of You Tube videos on Cicero that serve as a good introduction, for example at Stoic Week 2015 – Day 3: Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis)

A. MacIntyre,  After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press)

W. Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control  (Corgi)

T. LeBon, Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder)

C. Peterson &  M. E. P. Seligman (2004). Character strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

B. Schwartz and K. Sharpe, ‘Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets Positive Psychology’, Journal of Happiness Studies (2006) 7:377–395

C. Gill & T. LeBon,‘Stoic Values Clarification’ (part 2) (2018)

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

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  His website is