Meet the Boston and New England Stoics by Pete Fagella

This post by Pete Fagella is the first post in a new series that we will be running regularly here at Stoicism Today. There are a number of local Stoic groups and organizations, and we are going to create a space for the organizers and leaders to tell their stories, impart useful lessons, and get the word out about their meetings and activities – Greg Sadler, editor

My name is Pete Fagella and I am the facilitator and founder of the New England Stoics. Roughly two years ago this month I reached out to the Stoic Fellowship – the international organization that helps coordinate between local Stoic groups – to inquire if there were any groups in my area. There were none at that time, and the fellowship helped me start this one. 

I sent the fellowship an email expressing interest in becoming part of a local group. I received a response from Greg Lopez who told me that although no group at that time existed, there were people who also wanted to be a part of one. Greg asked me if I would be willing to take the lead, I thought to myself “why not”.

Greg sent me a list of all of the people who had expressed an interest and introduced me to them via e-mail. He introduced me to an organizing tool called doodle and after many emails back and forth and through the use of doodle who had planned our first meeting. The fellowship was critical to help our baby group reach this important phase.

At that time, we were not using the Meetup platform, so we had to promote ourselves on our own web page which we have since replaced with an improved site and a mailing list. As people would come to our meetings, we added them onto the mailing list and used that to notify previous attendees of future meetings

The first meeting was like no other. There was no specific topic, nor any foundation as to how to proceed. We mostly just got to know each other and discussed what drew us to each other. This was an experiment about whether such a group was feasible. Several significant events happened during this meeting:

  • we adopted our name, The New England Stoics
  • we learned that people would come to meetings if we had them
  • our leadership team was created.

We stayed an hour after closing, nobody realized the time and the staff at Panera Bread didn’t tell us. Immediately afterwards I informed Greg of our success and we started the process of being listed as part of the Stoic Fellowship.

Following meetings were about specific topics though we had no discernible pattern. We would discuss a variety of times such as death, the definition of good, happiness, whatever we would think of really. Mostly we were trying to understand stoicism ourselves at that time and by meeting in a group we were able to start to help each other understand. Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn.                         

However, after several attempts we begin to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We realized quickly that having a team of people involved in the planning process was much more beneficial than a single individual. I would have ultimate say in what we did but as a team we would discuss the events of the previous meeting and determine how to improve. The most difficult challenge was deciding where to meet, we tried many different places and times.

At first, we wanted to have a rotating meeting location in different towns so that people from all over the region would have better chances to attend the meetings. We were after all, at that time, the only group in the entirety of New England. This did not have the result we hoped for, regulars still came, but not many new people. For the regulars it was an inconvenience to go so far out of their ways for some of the locations. We decided to centralize our meetings and this seems to have had positive results.

Stoicon is an annual event in which Stoicism is discussed in great deal by experts in the field. The event attracts hundreds of people but unfortunately it is not accessible to many people. Consequently, the Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism encourages the local groups to have a miniature version of this event called Stoicon-X.  At first, I did not think that we had the numbers to have an event of this scale. We would often only have 3-4 people show up at our meetings. However, I was convinced by the other people in my team that we would try it anyway.

We created flyers to put around the region and posted the event on Eventbrite. We would hold the event in Worchester, Ma at the first Unitarian Church. Four of us would be involved in the event, each having their own individual speeches. We spent a lot of time on conference calls with each other hammering out the details.

In October of that year we hosted our first Stoicon-X event. Roughly 12 people showed up. Marc opened up the event with Stoicism 101 talking about the history and basic theory of Stoicism. John, who was a trained therapist discussed psychotherapy’s Debt to Stoicism & Intro to Philosophical Counseling. Tim had a speech entitled “The Intellectual Scalpel: Naming and Classification”.  I hosted the event and discussed Stoicism and how it applies to social dynamics. Additionally, we performed a 10-minute play. John played the Stoic friend, Marc played the un-Stoic friend and I played a man who was seeking advice. We had refreshments and the entire thing lasted four hours.

Stoicon-X New England was a tremendous success. I realized that if we could have this much success on our small web site with minimal advertising then we could do wonders on Meetup. I could not afford to pay for Meetup, however, but another option existed. If you pay for Meetup you are allowed to have several slots for groups. The Stoic Fellowship helps groups that do not have Meetup to get in touch with other groups with free Meetup slots. I reached out to Greg Lopez again and he put me in touch with David Emory, facilitator of the Colorado Springs Stoa. David was extremely generous and we can thank our success primarily to him. We were able to create a Meetup slot under his account. If anybody is in the Colorado Springs area I highly recommend finding his group on Meetup.

With the Meetup page we were able to attract a much wider audience. We also had more confidence in our ability and knowledge of the material. We had individual meetings discussing each of the four stoic virtues, Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. We talked about friendship, and reliance, and even death. We met new people and really began to grow.

The following Memorial Day we held a Stoic Camp in northern Maine. Tim attended the Wyoming Stoic camp and had mentioned it in the past. Marc had a cabin that he shared part time with other people. We married these two thoughts together and the idea for a New England Stoic camp was born.

We decided that Epictetus would be the focus of our event. The academic portion would define Stoicism and its history, would give a historical background on Epictetus himself, and would delve into the Discourses. We also had time for journaling. The camp however, was far from just academics; we had a lot of recreation as well.

Between 10-15 people showed up at the camp depending on the day. We were all asked to pack our own lunch, but we ate dinner as a group. I made pasta with homemade sauce one night, and we had BBQ another night. We hiked to several water falls and even had some of our lectures there, we even tested our Stoicism by playing the board game “Risk” which nearly ended several friendships. We also dedicated some quiet time for people to reflect and go on nature walks. Along with the cabin itself, the property had a yurt. We would listen to podcasts on Stoicism, but most importantly the yurt is where the New England Stoics adopted our event tradition. At the conclusion of our major events (not regular meetings) we set a timer for 60 seconds and when the timer goes off, we let out a mighty roar. It’s a lot of fun.

Almost immediately after the success of the camp we began to plan Stoicon-X 2019. This time we had three speakers, Zeph, Marc, and myself. This event actually took less planning then the first Stoicon-X. By this point we had already planned two major events so we had some experience. We learned from the camp the value of having dinner together. We learned from the first Stoicon-X and also the camp how time can escape us. Consequently, we decided that 2019 would last for 6 hours and was to be followed by a 2-hour pot luck dinner. We sold the tickets on Eventbrite and advertised on meetup as well as through Stoicism Today.

The next October we had our second Stoicon-X which had twice as much as the first in terms of attendance. I hosted the event and talked about why we practice philosophy, and I read from Cicero. Zeph discussed internals vs. externals, taking into account the challenges we face in modern society like mental illness that the ancient Stoics lacked a medical understanding about. He also addressed other road blocks to having true control of our own thoughts and impressions. Marc talked again about the history of Stoicism; he also did a speech on life philosophies. Additionally, Marc gave detailed recommendations on various online sources of information to learn more about Stoicism.

We had two break-out activities and an extended break time. The first break-out activity focused on knowing what is in your control, and what is not. We broke into 3 groups; in the groups we all discussed minor problems that we encountered, and using the information from Zeph’s speech on internals vs externals, we addressed the individual problems. We made sure to ask people to show us silly issues like being stuck in traffic and not divulge sensitive information.

The second break-out activity was a concentration on negative visualization. We again broke into 3 groups, but we rotated the people to create new groups. We wanted people to imagine mildly unpleasant things happening to them and discuss how to resolve them. We asked them to again not get too personal and to imagine events like a shoelace breaking. The ultimate point was to encourage people to appreciate things when we have them.

During the break, we had many books laid out with reviews placed inside the cover. We had a YouTube video of Donald Robertson at the Stoicon X Toronto. We had a station for gratitude letters, and we had snacks. The event went really well, and we handed out books as prizes, including Donald Robertson’s latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, the Meditations, and several others. People had the options to just socialize or participate in some of the activities. At the end of the meeting we all went outside and let out a mighty roar.

The proceeds from the event went back into the group. We took no profit. We were able to fund a more integrated website www.nestoics.Org that includes a blog, and links to our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, our mailing list, and of course a link to our Meetup page, which at this point has over 250 people. 

The historic North End of Boston was the home of Paul Revere, and its still there. A few blocks away is the Old North Church. As the story goes, in the year 1775 the British had occupied Boston. Revolutionaries had expected armed conflict to begin soon and began to store weapons near the towns of Lexington and Concord. All of Boston was surrounded by colonial militia. A plan was set in place that from the Old North Church they would observe the British army. If the army began to march by land, one candle would be displayed in the church, and if by sea it would be two. The British marched by land and from the Old North Church one candle was observed by Paul Revere and he gallantly rode his horse to warn the colonials who had time to prepare. Thus, began the Revolutionary War. History tells us that this story was true to a degree but embellishes the role of Revere being the solo rider, in truth many people were involved.

 We currently meet in this neighborhood, with its cobblestone streets, surrounded by all this history and so much more. Each month, one of our meetings is known as the “Philosopher’s Café”. This is a free-flowing conversation about whatever is on our minds. This is a great opportunity for those who are curious about Stoicism to learn the basics, while at the same time making new friends and creating possible mentorships.

Our vision is for people to be able to come in off the street and if they are in need of guidance, that we may be able to provide a possible option for them to explore. We are not at all interested in pushing our ideals on others, but if people are curious, we’d love to share. The dream of the Philosophers Café is to create more regulars who we can help grow into the virtuous people they want to be, we want to help people become happier and help the world to be a better place. 

We recently started a new type of meeting. Traditionally we decide on a specific topic to discuss and just go with that, sometimes we will have topics relating to the previous meetings but not always. Having consulted with Greg Lopez while on conference call with several other Stoic group facilitators, I was introduced to a new idea called a practice group.  

In addition to being a ranking member of the Stoic Fellowship, Greg is also the facilitator of the NYC Stoics. In his group he has developed essentially a class that is designed to help the aspiring Stoic Philosopher on how to essentially move from reading about Stoicism to living as a Stoic. There are 11 classes, meant to be one month apart. Each class contains readings and exercises. The entire program follows a sequential pattern such that each class is a pre-requisite to the next. Greg was generous enough to allow me to use this program. As of this publication we have had the first of the 11 classes and it was an amazing success.

As a general rule we will alternate every two weeks between the Philosopher’s Café and the practice group. We will not deviate from the practice group schedule, however we may on occasion substitute the Philosopher’s Café with special events such as Stoic Camp, Stoicon-X, or anything else we develop. Anything that will end with a mighty roar! We want to increase our presence to beyond the region, and endeavor to live up to the reputation the higher New England education has made for itself.

Geographically the New England Stoics is the largest group between the giants in New York (run by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez) and in Toronto (run by Donald Robertson). We want to be the bridge that brings New York and Toronto together. We can serve as either a stopover point for those traveling in between or as an easier option for people who live just out of reach for either. We are still relatively small, but we plan to be here for a long time, and we hope to bring others along for the ride.

In February, 2020 we will be marking our two-year anniversary. As of this publication we have 276 people signed up for our meetup with more joining at a steady rate. The meetings have gone from an average of 3-4 people to now between 10-15 people. We meet every two weeks and the vast majority of our events are free (unless they end with a mighty roar).

This group would not have been able to reach the status of where we are today without the help and generosity of so many people. I want to thank Greg Lopez who helped bring us all together and played a critical part in the development of this group. I want to thank Tim Howe for helping me in those very early days to head up our IT. It was with his help that we were able to attract those first members. He was also critical in the planning of Stoicon X 2018 and the stoic camp. I want to thank Marc Dashaies for sticking with us for nearly the entire adventure. Marc was who first suggested we have Stoicon-X 2018, he helped plan it he has also been a part of every other event and every other meeting we have had since. I want to thank John Monfredo who helped plan, and gave a wonderful speech at Stoicon X 2018. I want to thank David Emory of the Colorado Springs Stoa for giving us his free meetup slot. Without his help we would not have the membership that we do, nor would we have met the wonderful people we now know. Meetup introduced Zeph Chang to the group, and I want to thank him for all his effort in helping to plan everything that has happened after the Stoic Camp. Zeph is the man who revamped our online presence, he created the new web site and helped to integrate our entire online presence into a single platform.  It was also Zeph who allowed us to use his house for Stoicon X 2019. He has been a good friend and a critical member of the leadership team. I want to thank Donald Robertson and Greg Sadler for the wisdom given to me as advice, and for their help in promoting our group and our events. Finally, I want to thank all of your for taking the time to read this article, I hope you enjoyed it.

I am not only the facilitator of the New England Stoics but I am also the regional support volunteer for the North East United States which includes all of New England and New York. Our mascot is the bald eagle and currently has four groups:

If you are interested in joining any of these groups please click on the links. If you would like more information or are interested in starting your own group in the North East Region feel free to join our discussion group on Facebook entitled “Stoicism Boston and New England”.  Please now take 60 seconds to reflect in silence and follow it by a mighty roar!

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

Stoicism and Scottish Philosophy

Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) was professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).  He was part of the movement in academic philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Stewart was also good friends with Scotland’s national bard, the poet Robert Burns. 

Much of intellectual life in eighteenth-century Scotland is marked by the phenomenon nowadays called the “Scottish Enlightenment” – a flourishing exchange of ideas in a quite remarkably tolerant public space… Scotland before the Enlightenment was not devoid of interest in classical antiquity, yet during the eighteenth century one can identify an increased interest in Greek and Latin authors – particularly in the Stoics and Cicero…

Christian Maurer, ‘Stoicism and the Scottish Enlightenment’ in the Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016) edited by John Sellars

Stewart was one of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers most interested in ancient Stoicism and provides a very insightful summary of its doctrines in the following excerpt from his book The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (1829), Book 4, Chapter 4, Section 2.  I’ve made light editorial changes to the content, such as updating some anachronistic spellings and reformatting his extensive quotations from other authors, such as James Harris and fellow Scots Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Thanks to Colin Hay of The Scottish Stoics for help preparing the text. – Donald Robertson

Of Happiness. Systems of the Grecian Schools on the Subject.

In opposition to the Epicurean doctrines on the subject of happiness, the Stoics placed the supreme good in rectitude of conduct, without any regard to the event. They did not, however, as has been often supposed, recommend an indifference to external objects, or a life of inactivity and apathy. On the contrary, they taught that nature pointed out to us certain objects of choice and of rejection, and amongst these some to be more chosen and avoided than others; and that virtue consisted in choosing and rejecting objects according to their intrinsic value. They admitted that health was to be preferred to sickness, riches to poverty; the prosperity of our family, of our friends, of our country, to their adversity; and they allowed, nay, they recommended, the most strenuous exertions to accomplish these desirable ends. They only contended these objects should be pursued not as the constituents of our happiness, but because we believe it to be agreeable to nature that we should pursue them; and that, therefore, when we have done our utmost, we should regard the event as indifferent. 

That this is a fair representation of the Stoic doctrine has been fully proved by Mr. James Harris in the very learned and judicious notes on his Dialogue concerning Happiness; a performance which, although not entirely free from Mr. Harris’s peculiarities of thought and style, does him so much honour, both as a writer and a moralist, that we cannot help regretting, while we peruse it, that he should so often have wasted his ingenuity and learning upon scholastic subtleties, equally inapplicable to the pursuits of science, and to the business of life.  Harris observes:

The word παθος [pathos], which we usually render a passion, means, in the Stoic sense, a perturbation, and is always so translated by Cicero; and the epithet απαθης [apathes], when applied to the wise man, does not mean an exemption from passion, but an exemption from that perturbation which is founded on erroneous opinions. The testimony of Epictetus is express to this purpose. I am not, says he, to be apathetic like a statue, but I am withal to observe relations both the natural and adventitious; as the man of religion, as the son, as the brother, as the father, as the citizen. And immediately before he tells us, that a perturbation in no other way ever arises but either when a desire is frustrated, or an aversion falls into that which it should avoid. In which passage it is observable that he does not make either desire, or aversion, παθη [pathe], or perturbations, but only the cause of perturbations when erroneously conducted.

Harris, Dialogue Concerning Happiness

From a great variety of passages, which it is unnecessary for me to transcribe, Harris concludes that “the Stoics, in the character of their virtuous man, included rational desire, aversion, and exultation; included love and parental affection, friendship, and a general benevolence to all mankind; and considered it as a duty arising from our very nature not to neglect the welfare of public society, but to be ever ready, according to our rank, to act as either the magistrate or as the private citizen.” 

Nor did they exclude wealth from among the objects of choice. The Stoic Hecato, in his Treatise of Offices, quoted by Cicero, tells us,

That a wise man, while he abstains from doing anything contrary to the customs, laws, and institutions of his country, ought to attend to his own fortune. For we do not desire to be rich for ourselves only, but for our children, relations, and friends, and especially for the commonwealth, inasmuch as the riches of individuals are the wealth of a state.

Cicero, De Officiis, iii.15

“Nay,” says Cicero, “if the wise man could mend his condition by adding to the amplest possessions the poorest, meanest utensil, he would in no degree condemn it.” [De Finibus, iv.12]

From these quotations it sufficiently appears that the Stoic system, so far from withdrawing men from the duties of life, was eminently favourable to active virtue. Its peculiar and distinguishing tenet was, that our happiness did not depend on the attainment of the objects of our choice, but on the part that we acted; but this principle was inculcated not to damp our exertions, but to lead us to rest our happiness only on circumstances which we ourselves could command. Says Epictetus:

If I am going to sail, I choose the best ship and the best pilot, and I wait for the fairest weather, that my circumstances and duty will allow. Prudence and propriety, the principles which the gods have given me for the direction of my conduct, require this of me, but they require no more; and if, notwithstanding, a storm arises, which neither the strength of the vessel nor the skill of the pilot are likely to with stand, I give myself no trouble, about the consequences. All that I had to do is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, to be anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned or come to a harbour is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I leave it entirely to his determination, nor ever break my rest with considering which way he is likely to decide it but receive whatever comes with equal indifference and security.

Epictetus, Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

We may observe further, in favour of this noble system, that the scale of desirable objects which it exhibited was peculiarly calculated to encourage the social virtues. It represented indeed (in common with the theory of Epicurus) self-love as the great spring of human actions; but in the application of this erroneous principle to practice, its doctrines were favourable to the most enlarged, nay, to the most disinterested benevolence. It taught that the prosperity of two was preferable to that of one; that of a city to that of a family; and that of our country to all partial considerations. It was up on this very principle, added to a sublime sentiment of piety, that it founded its chief argument for an entire resignation to the dispensations of Providence. As all events are ordered by perfect wisdom and goodness, the Stoics concluded, that whatever happens is calculated to produce the greatest good possible to the universe in general. As it is agreeable to nature, therefore, that we should prefer the happiness of many to a few, and of all to that of many, they concluded that every event which happens is precisely that which we ourselves would have desired, if we had been acquainted with the whole scheme of the Divine administration.  

In what sense are some things said to be according to our nature, and others contrary to it? It is in that sense in which we consider ourselves as separated and detached from all other things. For thus it may be said to be the nature of the foot to be always clean. But if you consider it as a foot, and not as something detached from the rest of the body, it must behove it sometimes to trample in the dirt, and sometimes to tread upon thorns, and sometimes, too, to be cut off for the sake of the whole body; and if it refuses this, it is no longer a foot. Thus, too, ought we to conceive with respect to ourselves. What are you? A man. If you consider yourself as something separated and detached, it is agreeable to your nature to live to old age, to be rich, to be in health. But if you consider yourself as a man, and as a part of the whole, upon account of that whole it will behove you sometimes to be in sick ness, sometimes to be exposed to the inconveniency of a sea voyage, sometimes to be in want, and at last perhaps to die before your time. Why then do you complain? Don’t you know that by doing so, as the foot ceases to be a foot, so you cease to be a man.


And as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus writes:

Oh world, all things are suitable to me which are suitable to thee. Nothing is too early or too late for me which is seasonable for thee. All is fruit to me which thy seasons bring forth. From thee are all things; in thee are all things; for thee are all things. Shall any man say, O beloved city of Cecrops! and wilt not thou say, O beloved city of God! 

Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

In this tendency of the Stoic philosophy to encourage the active and social virtues, it was most remarkably distinguished from the system of Epicurus. The latter, indeed, seems (as it was first taught) to have been the reverse of that system of sensuality and of libertinism, to which the epithet Epicurean is commonly applied in modern times; but it was at best a system of selfishness and prudent indulgence, which placed happiness in a seclusion from care, and in an indifference to all the concerns of mankind. By the Stoics, on the contrary, virtue was supposed to consist in the affectionate performance of every good office towards their fellow creatures, and in full resignation to Providence for everything independent of their own choice. 

It is remarked by Dr. Adam Ferguson that:

Their different schemes of theology clearly pointed out their opposite plans of morality also. Both admitted the existence of God. But to one the Deity was a retired essence enjoying itself, and far removed from any work of creation and Providence. 

The other considered the Deity as the principle of existence and of order in the universe, from whom all intelligence proceeds, and to whom all intelligence will return; whose power is the irresistible energy of wisdom and of goodness, ever present and ever active; bestowing on man the faculty of reason and the freedom of choice, that he may learn, in acting for the general good, to imitate the Divine nature; and that, in respect of events independent of his will, he may acquiesce in the determination of Providence. 

In conformity with these principles one sect recommended seclusion from all the cares of family or state. The other recommended an active part in all the concerns of our fellow creatures, and the steady exertion of a mind benevolent, courageous, and temperate. Here the sects essentially differed, not in words, as has sometimes been alleged, but in the views which they entertained of a plan for the conduct of human life. The Epicurean was a deserter from the cause of his fellow creatures and might justly be reckoned a traitor to the community of nature, of mankind, and even of his country.

The Stoic enlisted himself as a willing instrument in the hand of God for the good of his fellow creatures. For himself, the cares and attentions which this object required were his pleasures, and the continued exertion of a beneficent affection, his welfare and his prosperity.

Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science

Such was the philosophy of the Stoics; — “a philosophy,” says Mr. Smith, “which affords the noblest lessons of magnanimity, is the best school of heroes and patriots; and to the greater part of whose precepts there can be no other objection but this honourable one, that they teach us to aim at a perfection altogether beyond the reach of human nature.” 

I cannot however help remarking, that this is by no means an objection to their system; for it is the business of the moralist to exhibit a standard far above the reach of our possible attainments. If he did otherwise, he must recommend errors and imperfections. Speaking of eloquence and the fine arts – and the observation holds equally with respect to every other pursuit – Quintilian says:

It has sometimes happened that great things have been accomplished by him who was striving at what was above his power.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, ii.12

To the same purpose it is well said by Seneca:

It is the mark of a generous spirit to aim at what is lofty; to attempt what is arduous; and ever to keep in view what it is impossible for the most splendid talents to accomplish.

Seneca, De Vita Beata, c.20

The Stoics themselves were sensible of the weakness inseparable from humanity. Cicero, speaking the language of a Stoic, says:

Neither indeed, when the two Decii or the two Scipios are mentioned as brave men, nor when Aristides or Fabricius are denominated just, is an example of fortitude in the former, or of justice in the latter, proposed as exactly conformable to the precepts of wisdom. For none of them were wise in that sense in which we apply the epithet to the wise man. Nor were Cato and Laelius such, although they were honoured with the appellation. No, not even the seven wise men of Greece who have been so widely celebrated, although, from the habitual discharge of middle duties, (ex mediorum officiorum frequentid) all of them bore a certain similitude to the ideal character.

 Cicero, De Officiis, L.iii, c.4

Seneca also mentions it as a general confession of the greatest philosophers, that the doctrine they taught was not “quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum vivendum est.” [“even as they themselves were living, but as I have to live”] [De Vita Beata, c.18] 

I know that I shall not be Milo, and yet I neglect not my body; nor Croesus, and yet I neglect not my estate; nor in general do we desist from the proper care of anything through despair of arriving at what is supreme.

Epictetus, Discourses, L.i, c.2

In the writings indeed of some of the Stoics, we meet with some absurd and violent paradoxes about the perfect felicity of the wise man on the one hand, and the equality of misery among all those who fall short of this ideal character on the other.

As all the actions of the wise man were perfect, so all those of the man who had not arrived at this supreme wisdom were faulty and equally faulty. As one truth could not be more true, nor one falsehood more false than another, so an honourable action could not be more honourable, nor a shameful one more shameful than another. As in shooting at a mark, the man who had missed it by an inch had equally missed it with him who had done so by an hundred yards, so the man who, in what appears to us the most insignificant action, had acted improperly, and without a sufficient reason, was equally faulty with him who had done so in what appears to us the most important; the man who has killed a cock (for example) improperly, and without a sufficient reason, with him who had murdered his father. 

Mr Smith continues,

It is not, however, by any means probable that these paradoxes formed a part of the original principles of Stoicism, as taught by Zeno and Cleanthes. It is much more probable that they were added to it by their disciple, Chrysippus, whose genius seems to have been more fitted for systematizing the doctrines of his preceptors, and adorning them with the imposing appendages of artificial definitions and divisions, than for imbibing the sublime spirit which they breathed. Such a man may very easily be supposed to have understood too literally some animated and exaggerated expressions of his masters in describing the happiness of the man of perfect virtue, and the unhappiness of whoever fell short of that character.

That these paradoxes were not adopted by the most rational admirers of the Stoic philosophy we have complete evidence; for we find them treating expressly of those imperfect virtues which are attained by inferior proficients in wisdom, and which they did not dignify with the name of rectitudes, but distinguished by the epithets of properfit, and decent

Such virtues are called by Cicero officia, and by Seneca convenientia. They are treated of by Cicero in his Offices and are said to have been the subject of a book (now lost) by Marcus Brutus. 

This apology, however, it must be confessed, will not extend to all the errors of the Stoic school. In particular, it will not extend to the notions it included on the subject of suicide.  But for these errors, if it is impossible to apologize, we may at least account in some measure, by the peculiar circumstances of the times when this philosophy arose, and which infected with the same spirit, though perhaps not in an equal degree, the peaceable and indolent followers of Epicurus. Says Mr. Smith:

During the age in which flourished the founders of all the principal sects of ancient philosophy — during the Peloponnesian war, and for many ages after its conclusion — all the different republics of Greece were at home almost always distracted by the most furious factions, and abroad involved in the most sanguinary wars, in which each sought not merely superiority or dominion, but either completely to extirpate all its enemies, or, what was not less cruel, to reduce them into the vilest of all states — that of domestic slavery. The smallness of the greater part of those states, too, rendered it to each of them no very improbable event, that it might itself fall into that very calamity which it had so frequently inflicted or attempted to inflict on its neighbours.

In this disorderly state of things the most perfect innocence, joined to the highest rank and the greatest services to the public, could give no security to any man, that even at home and among his fellow citizens, he was not, at some time or other, from the prevalence of some hostile and furious faction, to be condemned to the most cruel and ignominious punishment. If he was taken prisoner of war, or if the city of which he was a member was conquered, he was exposed, if possible, to still greater injuries.

As an American savage, therefore, prepares his death song, and considers how he should act when he has fallen into the hands of his enemies, and is by them put to death in the most lingering tortures, and amidst the insults and derisions of all the spectators, so a Grecian patriot or hero could not avoid frequently employing his thoughts in considering what he ought both to suffer and to do in banishment, in captivity, when reduced to slavery, when put to the torture, when brought to the scaffold. It was the business of their philosophers to prepare the death song which the Grecian patriots and heroes might make use of on the proper occasions; and of all the different sects it must, I think, be acknowledged, that the Stoics had prepared by far the most animated and spirited song.

Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

After all, it is impossible to deny that there is some foundation for a censure which Lord Bacon has some where passed on this celebrated sect. “Certainly,” says he, “the Stoics bestowed too much cost on death, and by their preparations made it more fearful.” At least, I suspect this may be the tendency of some passages in their writings, in such a state of society as that in which we live; but in perusing them we ought always to remember the circumstances of those men to whom they were addressed, and which are so eloquently described in the observations just quoted from Mr. Smith. The practical reflection which Francis Bacon adds to this censure is invaluable and is strictly conformable to the spirit of the Stoic system, although he seems to state it by way of contrast to their principles. He says,

It is as natural to die as to be born; and to a little infant perhaps the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for a time scarce feels the hurt; and therefore, a mind fixed and bent upon somewhat that is good doth best avert the dolors of death

Bacon, Essays

Upon the whole, notwithstanding the imperfections of this system, and the paradoxes which disgrace it in some accounts of it that have descended to our times, it cannot be disputed, that its leading doctrines are agreeable to the purest principles of morality and religion. Indeed, they all terminate in one maxim: That we should not make the attainment of things external an ultimate object but place the business of life in doing our duty and leave the care of our happiness to him who made us. Nor does the whole merit of these doctrines consist in their purity. It is doing them no more than justice to say, that they were more completely systematic in all their parts, and more ingeniously, as well as eloquently, supported, than anything else that remains of ancient philosophy. 

I must not conclude these observations on the Stoic system, without taking notice of the practical effects it produced on the characters of many of its professors. It was the precepts of this school which rendered the supreme power in the hands of Marcus Aurelius a blessing to the human race; and which secured the private happiness and elevated the minds of Helvidius and Thrasea under a tyranny by which their country was oppressed. Nor must it be forgotten, that in the last struggles of Roman liberty, while the school of Epicurus produced Caesar, that of Zeno produced Cato and Brutus. The one sacrificed mankind to himself; the others sacrificed themselves to mankind. 

Hi mores, hsec duri immota Catonis 
Secta fuit, servare modum, finemque tenere, 
Naturamque sequi, patriaeque impendere vitam; 
Nec sibi, sed toti genitum se credere mundo. 

[This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.]

Lucan, Pharsalia, Lib. ii. 1. 380

The sentiment of President Montesquieu on this subject is well known.

Never, were any principles more worthy of human nature, and more proper to form the good citizen, than those of the Stoics; and if I could for a moment cease to recollect that I am a Christian, I should not be able to hinder myself from ranking the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race.

Stoicism Groups in Your Country

News: We have now created a Facebook group for admins of other Facebook groups, to help you get started and grow your community.

Over the past few years, more Facebook discussion groups have sprung up for Stoicism. The largest group, which I run, currently has about 55k members, and is just called Stoicism (Stoic Philosophy). There are also groups for Stoic Parents, Stoicism and the military, and even Stoic Dating.

However, in this post, I’d like to provide a list of those groups associated with particular geographical regions: countries or cities. The image on this page shows the countries from which most visitors to the Modern Stoicism website come, in rank order, with the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia consistently at the top, followed by Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, in that order.

I recommend that anyone who wants to encourage a Stoicism community in their home town or city should consider using Facebook in this way. (If you’re not a fan of Facebook there are, of course, other options but the fact is that currently it seems to be the option that actually works best.) See my recent article about How to Bring Stoicism to Your City. Also consider making the Modern Stoicism page an admin of your regional group, as this allows us to promote your group through Facebook more easily by listing it on our page.

The format I recommend for a group name is “Stoicism [country/city]”. If it’s in a language other than English, I’d repeat the same name in English after it in parentheses like “Stoïcisme Nederland en België (Stoicism Netherlands and Belgium)”. (Word of advice to admins: Some of the groups below are currently not easy to find by searching!)

List of Regional Facebook Groups

Please comment below with any other suggestions for groups that could be added to this list…

Britain and Ireland

Rest of Europe

North America

South America





(To be continued…)

How to Bring Stoicism to your City

“How do I get started bringing people interested in Stoicism together in the place where I live?” People ask me this question so often that I’ve decided to write a very simple guide. There are three basic steps you can follow:

1. Create an Online Community

Generally these are on Facebook, which seems to work well, although it might not be everyone’s choice. Join an existing Facebook Stoicism group for your country or city. If there isn’t one, try creating one. For example, I recently helped create Stoicism Netherlands and there are Facebook groups for Stoics in London, Toronto, and other major cities.

These groups can take time to grow but eventually they will take on a life of their own, especially if you keep sharing appropriate content. It’s important to have ground rules, though, and not to allow personal abuse or off-topic (spammy) posts – too much of those will cause people to leave and prevent your group from flourishing. Share appropriate content and ask questions to stimulate discussion. Once you have a large enough online community, it will be easier to organize other events.

A great resource for your group to start work on would be a list of books on Stoicism in your language. Goodreads Listopia allows you to do it really easily and it’s very helpful to new members.

2. Organize Face-to-Face Meetups

Most people use Meetup to do this. For example, the Toronto Stoics, where I live, have about 1,400 people, making it the largest Stoicism meetup group in the world. See if the Stoic Fellowship already have meetups in your area. They can also give you information on people interested in starting one, or ideas for how to run the meetings.

Organizing face-to-face meetups probably requires more patience and skill than just setting up a Facebook discussion group. However, eventually these groups also begin to take on a life of their own. You can base each meeting around a chapter from a book on Stoicism, making it a little bit like running a book club. It’s important to have several people who can help so that if you’re unavailable or can’t continue to attend, someone else can take over in your stead.

3. Organize a Stoicon-x Event

Every year since 2012, Modern Stoicism has organized a Stoicon conference, which moves to a different city each year. We also organize and encourage others to organize smaller “Stoicon-x” events, mini-conferences, in different cities around the world. Often once the main Stoicon conference has visited a city it’s easier to organize a Stoicon-x conference the following year because many of the same people will attend.

In a large city like New York or Toronto, even these smaller conferences might attract 100-150 people, fairly easily. Organizing a conference can be quite a responsibility, though. Modern Stoicism can offer advice. Choosing experienced speakers can help. It’s good to start small with perhaps a half-day event. Authors tend to be obliged to promote their books so they have an incentive to respond to requests to speak at events like these. However, in some parts of the world it can be easier than others to find appropriate speakers. (People tend to be more likely to buy tickets if they recognize the names of some of the speakers.)

We’ve found that “lightning talks” work well where individuals are invited to speak for five minutes one after another on different topics. This is a good way of attracting and testing out new speakers. It also means that even if you’re organizing a half-day event your audience will get to hear a lot of talks, and experience a variety of speakers.

New Stoicism Netherlands Discussion Group

We’re pleased to announce the creation of a new Facebook discussion group for people interested in Stoicism who are based in the Netherlands, or Flanders, or speak Dutch.

Join the Stoicism Netherlands Facebook Group

Donald Robertson will also be hosting a free “coffee and Stoicism” meeting on Friday 27th September at 1pm in the Vascobelo coffee shop, inside the Scheltema book store, in Amsterdam. Everyone is welcome…

Facebook Event Listing: Coffee and Stoicism in Amsterdam