CAt least on some level, co-authoring my recent book “Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In” was a journey into the hearts and minds of the great men and women, who pointed out the path to eudaimonia (a state that Zeno referred to as the “good life” or “the life worthy of being lived”) and told us that we could obtain it through our work alone. One of the most powerful Stoics that I became acquainted with, and whose story Leo and I tell (in Chapter 7) is that of the Spartan Queen Agiatis. She leant on Stoic ideas to help her husband King Kleomenes III bring down an oligarchical regime that had crushed Sparta’s warrior spirit. Her example speaks to me for three reasons:
- It confirms to me that Stoicism isn’t only about the self: While Stoicism is profoundly about sculpting your own character, the Stoic-influenced Spartan land and socioeconomic reforms prove that the philosophy can be used for the common good. It also shows me that we can successfully apply Stoicism at the community level and assures me that Stoicism has something to say about environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, which we normally don’t consider to be under our control. I am convinced that if the Spartans could use Stoicism to improve their society, then so can we.
- Sparta was so much more than toughness and austerity: Writing Being Better allowed me to dispel the myths of a Spartan as a single-minded killing machine. It taught me how Kleomenes, with help from his wife and the Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, reformed the educational system, established paths to citizenship for foreigners, and tirelessly advocated for justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom (at least how they conceived of these virtues). Even in their failures, the Spartan Stoics showed me that reason and justice were more natural to humankind than mere slaughtering in warfare. It is interesting to me how the mass media creations of Sparta, though often entertaining, says more about the vices of contemporary society than it does about ancient Sparta!
- Female Stoics were not silent: If you listen carefully, female Stoics have a voice and they powerfully remind us that role models come in all shapes and sizes, whether they label themselves as Stoics or not. This inspired me to continue playing my part in making the contemporary Stoic community as cohesive and coherent as possible. In particular, it made me think about how we all need to lean into reason and put aside the labels we too often used to define and separate ourselves from others.
In some respects, Being Better was a very difficult book to write, not least because it rebels against its categorisation as a “self-help” book. This is because it fundamentally questions the meaning behind, and validity of, the self-help space – at least how it’s conventionally understood. The irony is not lost on me. In fact, if Being Better was a person, I think it would be the troublemaker who is precariously close to being thrown out of the group for biting the hand that feeds it. There would certainly be some truth in this accusation. Without a shadow of a doubt, Being Better owes its existence to the half-truths (and some damn right lies) that litter the self-help space and which, for the most part, constitute the tried and tested formula of self-help success.
In the remainder of this article, I would like to show, at least to some extent, where and why Being Better, breaks the “self-help” mould and challenges Stoic practitioners, including myself, to grapple with what is required to create and belong to a world worth living in.
There Are No Universal Solutions in Stoicism
Many self-help books (not necessarily Stoic ones) are written by people who believe that the secret to your “success” (not just theirs) is their 10-step plan, which if followed to the letter will guarantee the life you dream of. However, this view of reality couldn’t be further from Stoicism, which holds that the ability to live a life worthy of being lived (the life the ancient Stoics said we should be dreaming of) is a function of four roles.
As Leo and I discuss in Being Better, only one of these, the role of being a rational human being, is universal to everyone. The second role is shaped by our individual nature. This includes our likes, dislikes, personality traits, and odd quirks. The third is a product of our personal circumstances, which include where we were born, where we now live, whether we have children or elderly parents, and how much money or social influence we have. The fourth relates to the professional path we wish to take in life and includes our career choices: the job that we are trained to do, and the corresponding knowledge that we acquired while doing it.
All four roles combine to determine our path to eudaimonia. Although we may share some steps with others, the path we carve (the choices we make and actions or inactions we undertake) is ultimately our own. It is unique to us because it is created by the way in which we actively chose to shape our character, in light of our moral obligations, responsibilities and the degree of freedom we have to walk upon the terrain (our circumstances) while tied to the metaphorical Stoic cart. As Leonidas Konstantakos and I state in Chapter 5:
Our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to save lives if we happen to be a motor mechanic will be different from that of a trained doctor. Likewise, our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to enact legal change will be different for those who are qualified lawyers or judges. However, a Stoic mechanic is expected to obtain the necessary wisdom that enables them to fix cars and to treat people justly at the same time, as this will have an impact on their own well-being and the well-being of others.
None of what I have said so far is remotely contentious or hard to understand. Both the Stoics and common-sense tells that no two people are exactly alike and that, therefore, we get different results when we do the exact same thing. To use a mundane, and rather silly, example, I am 5ft 5 inches, Leo is 6ft. If “success” is grabbing toilet roll off the top shelf in a supermarket, and it is to be achieved by following Leo’s instructions to (1) stand in the correct place and (2) reach my arms up in the air and (3) grab it, then I will fail if the shelf is higher up than I can physically reach. No amount of self-belief will result in my adult limbs growing. It may be a stupid example, but, in essence, it’s no different to all sorts of claims that too many self-help authors make. This is why Leo and I wrote in Chapter 1:
We aren’t privy to your personal circumstances. We don’t know the nature of the problems you are trying to solve. We cannot guess how you and those around you would react to any of the many possible options available to you. Even if we did know you well and tried to “put ourselves in your shoes,” what we would actually be doing is considering your situation from our point of view. In other words, we would be putting our feet into your shoes rather than considering how your shoes fit your feet! 
Ironically, writing the above paragraph flies in the face of conventional non-Stoic self-help wisdom, even though it is effectively saying “we are not going to give you answers precisely because we want you to think it through and help yourself”. In other words, Leo and I wrote Being Better in a way that (we hope) gets you to ask yourself better questions, ask yourself questions that you might never have thought about previously and, ultimately, ask yourself how you can be a better person. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the quality of my life has been marked by the quality of my questions.
For me personally, Being Better empowered me to ask extremely difficult questions – ones we typically shy away from, even in the contemporary Stoic community! For example, the book caused me to consider if I truly believed the Stoic claim that slavery is an “indifferent”, i.e. neither a virtue or vice. It made me ask myself whether, and to what extent, Stoicism can be used to fight climate breakdown, extreme poverty and religious/political intolerance.
I am happy to report that, if anything, Being Better convinced me that Stoicism is a powerful tool that goes way beyond our (hopefully) calmer self and quotidian matters.
Stoic Self-Help Isn’t About Me, Myself and I
When I first came across Stoicism, and as I wrote for the Daily Stoic, I saw a philosophy that serves humanity by helping individuals to acknowledge and work towards cosmopolitanism, as captured by Hierocles Circles of Concern. These circles depict the Stoic belief that we all belong to one universal community bound by reason (logos).The circles also visually portray the Stoic belief that a reasonable person’s relationship with others starts with the circle of the “self” and expands into “family,” “friends,” “community,” and “all humanity”, and, in my opinion, the “Earth”.
These circles allow us to recognise ourselves in all of humanity and all of humanity in ourselves. It leads to an understanding that Stoicism is more about collective obligations, responsibilities and civic duty than an individual’s rights, a sentiment which is nicely captured by Marcus Aurelius when he says:
What brings no benefit to the hive brings no benefit to the beeMeditations 6.54
The aforementioned phrase by Aurelius is well-known in the contemporary Stoic community. It is impossible to disagree with it and is the kind of sentence I would expect to find on a Silicon Valley CEO’s fridge, as much as I would anticipate seeing it on an eco-feminist Marxist’s backpack. The problem is that superficial sentiments and pithy quotes can equally support the idea of “success” as becoming a more effective entrepreneur (in your main job or side hustle), who earns considerable money and “crushes it” for the benefit of the customer and shareholder bees. However, such an approach to success contrasts with Stoic ethics, particularly the theological aspects. Leo and I highlight this in Being Better, when we discuss the importance of considering the wellbeing of all things that share the logos with us (this includes animals, plants and rocks).
Being Better also alludes to the dangers of self-help authors creating the (false) impression that humanity is destined to live in a dog-eat-dog world or is subject to a zero-sum game that only fools think we can escape. To me, the fool is the person who values competition over collaboration only to lose out on the benefits that can be obtained when we chose to work towards for the common good – something that Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, makes beautifully clear when the protagonist highlights the consequences of translating the word “tool” as “weapon”.
Having written Being Better, I would now say that I am more acutely aware as to how quickly false notions of competition can become a weapon with which to attack the shield of cosmopolitanism. For evidence of this, consider how often business self-help books use the terms “crushing it” or “killing it” to, somewhat ironically, describe someone who is doing something well. How precisely can crushing, killing or annihilating the competition bring us closer to virtue and eudaimonia? It doesn’t surprise me that these kinds of self-help books fail to mention justice or wisdom and restrict self-control and courage to having enough “self-control” or “courage” to “follow your passion” (not exactly a Stoic message). It also doesn’t help people if authors glorify the making of sacrifices for the sake of a more pleasurable or wealthier (rather than virtuous) existence.
Writing Being Better convinced me more than ever to take a stand against the idea that a world worth living is one where we should all prioritise how we feel over a sense of rational thought processing, duty and civic responsibility. To truly live Marcus Aurelius’ warning, we have to embody it in our day-to-day decisions such as what we eat, what we buy and what we chose to tolerate. Being Better also made me consider just how much we all invest in convincing ourselves that we can do nothing because X or Y is beyond our control. Wouldn’t we all be better Stoics if we invested in our agency so that we could gain control? In this respect, I think there are definitely times that we all get a little too complacent and comfortable in our Epicurean garden!
Maybe, Stoicism’s Not for Everyone?
I have heard a great many contemporary Stoic practitioners and scholars say that Stoicism really isn’t for everyone. However, I don’t think I quite understood where they were coming from until after I had finished writing Being Better. While Stoicism certainly doesn’t call us to proselytise or to preach to anyone, I would be lying if I said didn’t want more Stoic practitioners in the world, even though I know that the size of the contemporary Stoic community is well beyond my control!
I think I thought that all people who sincerely came into contact with Stoicism would just ease their way into the practice. I thought that if they understood the fundamentals, they would be prepared to accept that it is a philosophy of extremes practiced in a world of multiple shades of grey. I am no longer sure that’s the case. Quite frankly, a lot of people do want a tick box guide sheet and, unfortunately for them, that’s just not Stoicism!
Stoic philosophy has no tick boxes and makes only one axiomatic claim: virtue is the only good and vice the only bad. Despite this, I find that some people may not wish to accept that what is a virtuous thing for me to do may not be a virtuous thing for them to do, because in Stoicism the right thing to do is dependent on the reason behind it. In turn, those reasons are a product of who you are and where you are at that specific moment in time. This is simply an understanding of the world that some people do not willingly accept because it smells of moral relativism.
However, in line with what I explained above, both a medical doctor and an academic doctor (PhD), like myself, who come across a dying person are morally obligated to do everything in their power to assist them. However, my obligation may end with a simple phone call, whereas the doctor might have to involve themselves in a range of complex processes (virtuous acts) that I couldn’t hope to understand.
Personally, I remain convinced that the path to eudaimonia is open up to all adults that are capable of reason and that Stoicism is one path that allows us to obtain it. I do believe that one of my obligations, at least for the moment, is to do my very best to ensure that I communicate the nature of Stoicism. This requires me to unpack what it really means for something to be an indifferent and to have as many Socratic discussions with contemporary Stoics as possible so we can together distinguish the superficial from the fundamentally important. To my mind, this is the first step on the road to being better and a world worth living in.
Acknowledgement: Kai would like to thank James Daltrey for his formulation of the footnote on Stoicism and moral relativism.
 We are largely indebted to Plutarch’s Lives of Agis and Kleomenes and Andrew Erskine’s The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action for the telling of the stories that connects Stoicism and Sparta.
 This mirrors Epictetus’s lesson in Discourses 1.1: Discourses 1.1): “If you’re writing to a friend, grammar will tell you what letters you ought to choose, but as to whether or not you ought to write to your friend, grammar won’t tell you that.
 Originally proposed in Whiting, K., Konstantakos, L., Carrasco, A., & Carmona, L. G. (2018). Sustainable development, wellbeing and material consumption: A Stoic perspective. Sustainability, 10(2), 474. Open access here: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474
 Darwin did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”, nor should it be taken to mean the strongest or most aggressive. It can equally mean the cleverest or most collaborative. For a brief accessible discussion, see: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13671-evolution-myths-survival-of-the-fittest-justifies-everyone-for-themselves/
 Stoicism does not invite moral relativism because it holds that being a rational social animal is a normative condition. This necessarily entails coherent reasoning and mutual aid, which is cashed out in terms of roles and positive responsibilities. As such the private internal understandings of any individual, or all actual or possible social customs within any specific culture are not all equally valid. They need to be argued for and justified in the light of the real-world relations between real human animals in the real natural world. Stoicism does not invite moral relativity because it holds that truth comes from universal reason, which is external to humans and not subject or a product of a specific culture or the belief of a single human individual
Kai Whiting is the co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com