Applying Stoicism: The First Decision by Travis Hume

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision

by Travis Hume

[Picture] Applying Stoicism, The First Decision - Stoicism Today Article

Four years ago, I was wholly dissatisfied with life. I held no strong wish to be wealthy, powerful, or well-known. I had no definitive dream to pursue besides bits and pieces of things I found interest in – activities that were more hobbies than pursuits. There appeared no clear means by which I could reinvigorate and point myself in the “right direction.” The basis for my pursuing my college education was little more than a guess of my “intended” career based on my personality traits, and a fear of a presumed, alternate lifetime of menial work.

In my own words at the time, I did not know who I was, what I was meant to be doing, and the means to discern an answer to either. I was adrift, basing all choices loosely on others expectations and a haphazard assumption of the progression of life. In rough order, I was “supposed” to attend college, get a career, buy a house, marry, have children, then retire. I knew no alternative paths, and believed there likely to be none. Concerning college, I was skeptical of others suggestions to “follow your interests and let the rest fall into place,” because of a seemingly equally pervasive counter-claim that “the point of college was to lead to a well-paying career.”

I possessed only rudimentary skills with math and the sciences, so my career options were (in my eyes) limited to the arts or psychology. My decision to pursue a bachelors in psychology was founded entirely on the premises that “I thought too much” and others “often seemed to open up to me.” I did not enjoy my studies, and struggled daily against thoughts that perhaps menial work was the only thing I was suited for. I thought often on my fate and the world I inhabited; whether my choices were meaningful or meaningless.

Early in my degree I was forced by general education requirements to take an intro to philosophy course. I held a negative bias against attending the course that I did not understand or try to explain. I did not believe that philosophy had any real-world application or meaning. I believed that I would hear “old men arguing over what is good or evil,” and “that I should just take their word for it.” It followed that that was my initial view of the lessons.

Each discussed philosopher and their respective theories seemed to blend together, with the exception of one: A philosopher named Epictetus. Epictetus, the professor said, claimed that virtue (being a good person) was the only truly good thing, and vice (being a bad person) was the only truly evil thing. Further, the philosopher claimed that money, power, and fame had no value in themselves, and would never bring a person peace or make them happy. These ideas deeply resonated with me, but conflicted with my long-held beliefs of “the way things were.” Reacting to the resulting discomfort, I raised my hand and asked “Wouldn’t it be really depressing to think like that all the time?” The Professor smiled, looked down, half-nodded, shrugged, and continued the lesson. Epictetus was rarely covered the remainder of the semester, and my brief, inner conflict subsided accordingly for a time.

The discomfort emerged again when, in a span wherein I had no outstanding personal needs, it occurred to me that I nevertheless felt dissatisfied. I meekly resisted uncomfortable thoughts that arose from this realization, countering “everyone feels this way sometimes,” “that’s just life,” asking myself “who else says otherwise?” Recalling Epictetus, I considered the possibility that I was mistaken about the nature of things. I was aware to some degree that my original thought process had been instilled by twenty-odd years of social and media influences. The alternative thought process that Epictetus proposed seemed immediately attractive, such as a potential belief that it is sufficient for happiness to do the right thing for its own sake.

“Perhaps there is something to philosophy that I’m not seeing,” I recall thinking. I searched for my intro to philosophy book and set a goal to read it in its entirety over the next several months. Notably, I avoided the section on Epictetus until the very end, for two reasons: A desire to give a “fair shake” to other philosophers’ theories, and a fear that the feeling originally drawn from listening to Epictetus’ claims would amount to little. Occasionally, I came close to recovering the desired “hit home” feeling while reading other philosophers works, but I did not succeed in matching it. I read Epictetus’s section last, comprised of a very brief history on his life and the Enchiridion, the “Handbook,” a highly condensed version of his lessons, The Discourses.

As I read the Enchiridion, the “hit home” feeling fully resurfaced. I found that I could not decisively argue against the claims that Epictetus was making, finding the internal rebuttal that “no-one believes or thinks this way” to be brittle and unconvincing. I asked myself: “What if it is really possible to think this way?” “Is it possible to apply something that is 2,000 years old?” According to Epictetus, it was, but only if I dedicate myself completely to incorporating the principles he described. I decided “if I am really going to apply this, I have to give it my all.”

From that day forward I sought to discern how Stoicism could be applied to my life, from moment-to-moment decision making, to responses to significant life events. Stoic principles became the foundation and driving force behind a new, earnest pursuit to involve myself in volunteering efforts for special needs organizations, participation in student government, residence life involvement, university representation work, engagement as a student leader, and commitment to a high-intensity exercise and nutrition regimen. Stoicism enabled me to discover and tap into a previously wholly unknown skill-set and self-sustaining source of drive. In time, I became determined to one day teach others in its use, so that others may benefit from it as I did.

The decision to take up Stoicism as a philosophy of life is not a light one. It tasks the bearer, daily, to assess, shape, and refine themselves. It does not serve as a cure-all, and cannot function as a band-aid – it is a craft, with the mind as its material, and the individual’s life as its testing grounds. In exchange, it provides a world-view in which little is taken for granted, and virtuous action is sufficient for enduring peace of mind, personal strength, and well-being. Drawing from Epictetus: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

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

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout by Kevin Vost

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout

by Kevin Vost


Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights. –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4 [1]

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15 [2]

And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…. –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19 [3]


Body by Stoics

While the ancient Roman Stoics of the first century AD, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca, clearly championed the proper use of our human thinking capacities to attain inner peace and live virtuous lives in accord with nature, they did not neglect the fact that nature has equipped us with physical bodies of sinewy flesh. Epictetus lists our bodies among those things beyond our power which we cannot completely control, but while the care and development of our bodies should not be a primary goal, this does not imply that the body should be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair or to grow to unseemly proportions. Self-generated physical problems can impede our capacities to participate in the roles the Playwright has prepared for us and can impair our cognitive capacities as well. Indeed, modern research suggests that the catchphrase “Use it or Lose It,” appears to apply to both physical and mental capacities throughout the course of our lives, and especially in our later years.

Hear Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, on this matter of body and soul:

Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life. [4]

Musonius then recommended the kinds of ascetic practices that would accustom our bodies to enduring heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and the endurance of other physical discomforts.


Personal Training Advice from the “Lame Old Man”

Epictetus called himself “a lame old man” later in life, apparently because of a broken leg suffered during the years of slavery in his youth, caused, according to some sources, by his master twisting his leg while Epictetus calmly warned him that in continuing to do so he could break it – and did. While Epictetus was certainly then no competitive athlete, he not only frequently used physical metaphors for training and growth in philosophy, he sometimes provided very useful advice for the training of the body, in terms of both why and how one should exercise.

For example, let’s look at this article’s first quotation. There, in Book 1.4 of the Discourses, Epictetus declares that progress in philosophy is shown not in the books one can read or write, or the Stoics one can quote, but from the results, the actual changes in a person’s life –  how one lives his daily life in terms of aversions and desires, choices and refusals actually in accord with nature. His example is from the realm of physical training and it is still so on target today. Epictetus wants to see the athlete’s “shoulders,” not his training equipment. In our time, exercise contraptions and workout programs are legion, with new ones devised almost daily it seems, but if you want to show Epictetus how you are progressing with your training, show him your latest exercise device or written workout program at your own risk, because he might well tell you to go jump in a lake!

What Epictetus would want you to do is roll up your sleeve and show the results of your training. The proof of your progress in physical training is indeed in the pudding of your bodily development, not only of course, in how your muscles look, but in what they can do, in terms of making you physically stronger, more enduring, and better at the athletic activity or physical labors of any sort that you choose to pursue. So then, one very wise principle of physical training we can glean from Epictetus is that to train our bodies rationally we must keep an eye toward the results we obtain (or the lack thereof) from whatever equipment or program we employ, so that changes may be made if progress is not shown.

Not only does Epictetus give us this sound advice to focus on visible, measurable results of bodily training, he starts us on the road toward the right kinds of training we ought to pursue. For example:

The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different. [5]

Now, bearing in mind that most readers of this article are probably not long-distance runners, let alone sprinters, or pentathletes, I will note again that it is of practical importance to all of us to keep our bodies strong and enduring, and will note for the first time, that the main focus of this article will be particularly upon the “strong” part, how to properly train our bodies for physical strength, without ignoring or impairing our capacities for endurance. This leads us to another great Stoic with some serious bodily impairments, but surprisingly sound advice on how to make our bodies strong.


Tremendous Training Tips from a Thin-Legged, Asthmatic, Short-Statured Stoic

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once wrote that he didn’t care that someone had joked about him being bald, with poor eyesight, skinny legs, and short, because “what insult is there in telling me what everybody sees?” [6] Apparently Seneca was quite content not to worry about things he could not control regarding his own body –  and what others might have to say about it! Still, Seneca has also provided us several golden nuggets of wisdom on the proper care of the body. His youth was marked by bouts of poor health, especially from asthma, it seems. He experienced such severe attacks of loss of breath that he described them as “preparations for death.” He even admitted to thoughts of suicide at times, which he would not pursue out of concern for his father.

In response to inborn physical frailties, as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would become famous for eighteen centuries later, Seneca undertook a regimen of rigorous physical training to compensate for his weakness and develop bodily strength and endurance, including such activities as swimming in frigid waters. Our primary interest here though is in the second quotation we used to start this article.

Seneca advised that the philosopher should not waste a lot of time on physical training, returning quickly from brief, efficient training, to the things of the mind. He notes that it is the rational capacities of mind that define what is finest in man, and regardless of how muscular and powerful a man might become, he’ll never be a match for a first-class bull! Fortunately for man though, precisely because of those reasoning abilities he can craft rational and efficient training programs to maximum strength and fitness attainable by human beings. So what about those short, simple, time-saving exercises Seneca recommended? He mentions “running, brandishing weights, and jumping,” which suggests to me that we jump ahead 1900 years from Seneca’s time to the modern exercise world of HIT and HIIT.


How the Stoics Hinted at HIT (and HIIT) 2,000 Years Ago

It was in the 1960s, almost exactly 1,900 years after Seneca’s death that an eccentric self-taught genius, inventor, and big-game hunter named Arthur Jones developed the Nautilus line of exercise equipment and became the foremost exponent of the idea of High Intensity Training (HIT for short), whether or not one used his machines to build strength. HIT principles are founded upon what Epictetus astutely observed: that different athletic events and goals require very different kinds of training. Indeed, as Epictetus contrasted the distance runner with the sprinter, Jones did just the same for those involved in strength-related sports, at that time primarily weight lifting, powerlifting, body-building, and to some extent, American football. [7]

Jones asked those seeking strength to look at the legs of a long-distance runner and those of a top-notch sprinter. The distance runner performs for long periods of time at a moderate level of intensity of effort, and the greatest marathoners, for example, are extremely light and lean, with rather small leg muscles. The legs of an experienced sprinter tell a very different story, a story that was dramatically illustrated during the last Olympics when coverage of the 100-meter dash immediately preceded that of the 5,000 meter race (about three miles). The sprinters bristled with muscles and looked like lithe and lean bodybuilders in both their lower and upper bodies, while the milers had that extremely lean, almost emaciated look. This is not to disparage distance runners in the least, for they have physical goals of their own, but to provide a powerful lesson for those who seek to build healthy and usable bodily strength and size.

Jones argued that the crucial mistake made by people who train for strength is to train like the long-distance endurance athlete, rather than the sprinter. In other words, it is the measured use of very hard and brief (e.g. “high intensity”) bursts of effort that stimulate muscle growth, not prolonged bouts and repetitions of only moderately difficult exertion.

To sum up a huge body of knowledge and give a few practical tips to readers, this high intensity (HIT) manner of training calls for:

  • High intensity, that is, using a weight suited to oneself so that one “fails” or cannot complete any additional repetitions at the end of a set of the desired number of repetitions.
  • Progressive resistance, so that when one succeeds with a targeted number of repetitions with a certain weight, the weight is increased slightly in the next workout, until the goal is achieved with the new weight. In this way, intensity always remains high. [8]
  • Limited duration of workouts, doing no more than one intense set per exercise after warm-up, because that one set to failure will trigger a growth response, and additional sets will hamper the body’s ability to recover. Jones used to say “You can work hard or work long, but not both.”
  • Limited frequency of workouts, training a particular exercise as infrequently as once per week.
  • Proper rest to allow for growth. Strength training breaks down muscle tissue and alarms the body to produce more muscle in adaption to that stress, and it can take several days before the damage is repaired and additional muscle tissue has been gained in the process called Indeed, as a person grows stronger, he may require more rest between workouts because of the greater demands each workout will make on recuperative capacities.
  • Proper form in the execution of strength-training exercises, because quick, jerky movements, for example, can call in the forces of momentum, while a purposely slower movement, in protocols varying from 2 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering the weight to even 10 seconds or more in each direction, ensure that only muscle action moves the weight.
  • Focus upon a limited number of compound exercises in which involve the rotation of more than one joint and which activate large masses of muscles, for example, squats, leg presses, dead lifts, bench pressing, overhead pressing, chinning, and rowing motions, because of the way such exercises stimulate the production of growth hormone and testosterone that lead to overall body development with a minimum of time investment.

A workout such a this could consist in as little as three exercises, what I call “a push, a leg, and a pull,” to involve almost all the major muscles of the body, with a few other “isolation exercises” involving rotation around only one joint like curls, leg extensions, etcetera, for those who would care to do them. Let me flesh out an example:

A Suggested Simple, Sample, “Stoic” Strength-Training Workout


Exercise Sets/Repetitions per Set
“A Push” (Choose one of the following: barbell, dumbbell, or machine bench press, incline press, or overhead press; or pushups, parallel bar dips, or handstand pushups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand exercises like pushups.
“A Pull” (Choose one of the following: barbell deadlift, barbell, dumbbell, or machine row, machine pulldown or chin-ups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand chin-ups for very strong individuals, (though chins can be intensified by moving more slowly up and down removing all momentum, and in fact, this method can be used to intensify all bodyweight only movements.)
“A Leg” (Chose one of the following: Barbell Squats or Front Squats, Leg Press, Bodyweight deep knee bends.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but would require higher repetitions for deep knee bends without addition weight.
Optional Extras: (If so inclined, add 1 – 5 additional exercises targeting muscles of interest such as curls for biceps, triceps, abdominal, neck, or calf exercises.) Same set and repetition scheme as above, though many people prefer higher repetitions of up to 20 or more for exercises with short ranges of motion, such as those for abdominals and calves.

All exercises are to be performed in a slow, controlled manner with proper form and natural breathing, striving to increase if possible by one repetition or a few pounds more on each exercise in each subsequent workout. This workout can be performed as infrequently as one time per week, in as little as 20 minutes. And how will you know if it is successful? Well, look at your shoulders! That is, see if you are progressing in the amount of weight you can use, the number of repetitions you can perform, the shape and size of your shoulders (and other muscles) and whether or not you feel fitter, more energetic, and better able to face whatever physical tasks are a part of your daily life.


From HIT to HIIT

A few decades after Jones’s work in strength training, we saw a similar development in the realm of intense endurance training that I’m sure would leave Seneca smiling as well. Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata found that very brief, infrequent episodes of traditional endurance-type, cardiovascular, or aerobic training also produce superior results to easier, but longer, steady-state training.   The original protocol called for 5 minutes of warm-up on a piece of equipment like an exercise bicycle, 8 intervals of only 20 seconds off all-out maximum pedaling, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each interval, and 2 minutes of cool-down. If I’ve done my math right, that’s an 11-minute workout, including both warm-up and cooldown, with four minutes of actual interval training, and 1/3 of that spent in rest! Dr. Tabata found VO2max [9] improvements in fit college PE majors who did this protocol 5 days per week exceeded those of students who did traditional 5 traditional steady-state sessions per week lasting 60 minutes each.

I will note as well that since that first reported study in 1996, many others have had success with other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocols of varying interval and rest durations and frequency of workouts. The key finding being, as Seneca notes, that there are indeed, “short and simple exercises that tire the body quickly” and let us get back to the things of the mind!

And to be fair, for Seneca even the philosopher could certainly indulge in more leisurely physical and long-lasting physical pursuits at times, noting, for example, that “we should talk walks outside so that the mind can be strengthened and refreshed by being outdoors as we breathe the fresh air.” In Letter 15, He tells Lucilius he does not intend for him to live bent over his books and his writing implements, but to intersperse reading and riding with bouts of mild exercise like walking or riding, in addition to the higher-intensity exercises he mentioned above.


The Virtues of Fitness for Everyone

Of the Roman Stoics of the 1st century AD, it appears from the extant remnants of Musonius Rufus’s lectures or post-lecture Q & A’s appearing in subsequent sources that he may have been the Stoic who placed the most emphasis on what have become known as the cardinal virtues.[10] While Musonius preached virtue in general, as opposed to vice, he also championed sophrosune (temperance or self-control), andreia, (fortitude or courage), phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom), and diakaiosune (justice).

Medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, and in generally in accord with the Stoics, has noted that “virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.” [11] And further, “if a man uses exercise, food, and drink in moderation, he will become physically strong and his health will be improved and preserved. It is the same with the virtues of the soul – for instance, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” [12]

So how might the cardinal virtues relate to training the body?

  • Fortitude provides the capacity to endure hard things for worthwhile goals, making it a most fitting virtue to assist those who would endure the physical pain and discomfort involved in performing both high intensity strength training and demanding endurance training. And indeed, as Musonius has noted, when we train our bodies to endure hardships, we also train the soul.
  • Temperance, applies most directly to the self-control involved in following the proper kind of diet that will sustain our training efforts, preserve our health, and preserve us from the kind of gluttony that distracts and weakens the soul.
  • Justice involves giving each person his or her rightful due, and in the realm of fitness, this might involve showing our concern by providing advice and examples of healthy living for all those around us, perhaps with special attention to the unique fitness goals and training needs of members of various groups of people, like the young, women, and the elderly.
  • Prudence is the virtue that gets the job done, finding the right means to obtain the worthwhile ends of bodily strength and fitness, in a safe and efficient manner that leaves us with plenty of time and energy to focus on the things of the soul that matter the most.

So then, would the Stoics have us all become Milos, philosophers bristling with as much brawn as brain? We have seen that Seneca would answer no, that strength and fitness are not the most important goals for human beings, though they are still worthy or some time and effort. Further, if our age, genetic constitution, or some physical injury or defect prevents us from attaining the heights of physical perfection should we not still train to improve our bodies as best we can, if we are physically able? As for Epictetus’s answer, I’ll let him respond to both of these last two questions in his own words:

Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest. [13]


Please note the caveat that any suggestions for exercise in this article are intended for healthy men and women. Even people without known health problems are advised to consult with their physician before starting a new exercise program.


[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Books I-II, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31. (First published 1925).

[2] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, trans. R. Gummere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97-98. (First published 1917).

[3] Oldfather, 347.

[4] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (, 2011), 63, Lecture 6.

[5] Oldfather, Epictetus Discourses, Books III-IV, 169. (Book 3, chapter 23).

[6] Cited in Richard Mott Gummere, Seneca the Philosopher and His Modern Message (Bibliobazaar, 2008), 54. (Originally published in 1922.)

[7] While strength training was pooh-poohed by most coaches and trainers in those days and even in the 1970s when I began training, due to the myth of becoming “muscle-bound,” Jones argued most vociferously that muscles are the body’s engines and that if all other factors are equal, “the stronger athletes will always win.” Today we see everyone from baseball players to golfers lifting weights to acquire the kind of strength they need to complement their skills and maximize their performance.

[8] The ancient Greek Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton (6th C BC) is credited in legend as the Father of Progressive Resistance Strength Training. The story went that when Milo was a young boy he lifted a young calf every day, and as they calf gradually grew into a bull, so too did Milo grow into a bull of a man! Other legends tie him to philosophy as the husband of Pythagorus’ daughter, and Milo is mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epictetus, as we’ll see later in this article. A man of many legends, one holds that near at the end of his life Milo tested his remaining strength by prying open the halves of a split tree trunk. When his strength gave out his hands were trapped and he was eaten by wolves!

[9] A measure of maximum oxygen update measured in milliliters by kilogram of bodyweight per minute.

[10] From the Latin cardine for “hinge” since the other virtues hang form and swing form them, so to speak.

[11] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 55, art. 2.

[12] C. I. Litzinger, OP. trans. St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), p. 89. (Commenting on Aristotle’s Book 2, chapter 2).

[13] Oldfather, 25. (Discourse 1.2).

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., a former competitive powerlifter and Highland Games heavy events competitor, is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right, and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul (Sophia Institute Press, 2007).



'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.


Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.


Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.


Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

by Donald Robertson and Michael Connell


Donald Robertson recently interviewed the comedian Michael Connell in his SMRT 2016 site about Michael’s recent Stoic Comedy special, his practice of Stoicism, and his reflections upon his craft.

Q: How do you make use of Stoic philosophy in your comedy?

The Stoic Comedy special I just released was a bit of a passion project for me. I’d been doing stand up for a long time, discovered Stoicism and been delighted with how it had improved my life. Whenever I’m passionate about something I want to talk about it in my routine, but with Stoicism I found that hard at first.

Stand up is usually focused on the outside – cats are weird, mother in laws annoying – and all about getting emotional. Stoicism is so focused on being rational and not being lead astray by emotions that I couldn’t find the jokes at first. Eventually though I figured out the comedy was in my irrationality. I’m a long way from being a Sage and find myself acting unstoically all the time, and by looking inward (as Stoicism teaches) and laughing at my foolishness I found the funny. In the special I make fun of people for getting upset when the trains are late, but if I’m honest those “people” were me.

Outside of my material I use Stoic philosophy in my comedy career all the time. The Stoic approach of looking for solutions from within yourself, has been a huge help in dealing with the tough crowds and fickle gatekeepers of the comedy business. Stoicism helps me focus on what’s important – being a better comedian and improving my act – and ignore the rest. If I’d discovered it sooner I may have saved me years trying to win over industry figures I was never going to win over.

Q: How did you first become interested in Stoicism?

Comedy is such a competitive field that I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. I heard somewhere that Stoicism was a useful philosophy that could make you more effective at business (I think it might’ve been in a blog post by Tim Ferriss), and picked up a copy of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good life.

Reading the book I was surprised at how familiar many of the ideas were; learning to do stand up I was taught to focus on what I could control, hardships made me a better performer, etc. What I’d never considered though was that these principles that I’d been using in my art could be made into an entire philosophical system and applied to my life.

Q: What’s your favourite Stoic saying or idea, and why?

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” – Marcus Aurelius

In my life I’ve often played it safe, I was looking for security. I thought if I just did all the right things one day I’d find myself in a perfect position from where could do all the things I wanted to, or knew I should, do. I wanted to be secure because, ultimately, I was afraid of death. For example I was afraid of starting a business because I might lose money, and if I lost money I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and if I couldn’t buy food I’d starve and die. No, better to avoid all that and play it safe. What I’ve learnt though (partly through studying Stoicism) is that you can never really achieve security; there is no permanence in an impermanent world. Death is an inevitable part of live and will come one day no matter how much little risk I expose myself to. The “safe option” is actually not the safe option, it just stops you from fully engaging with the ever changing universe (which is really the only security you can have in this world). All this tends to be hard for me to remember though, so this quote is really useful.

It’s also fun to drop into conversations to make everything seem more dramatic.

Co-worker: “I want to go get a coffee.”

Me: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

How long have you got?

I love the “now what?” attitude that Stoicism has. When I was younger I used to get quite angry when things were unfair. After completing my university degree I was left owing quite a bit of student debt. I sat around thinking how unjust the world was that I, a brilliant artist, was saddled with this burden that stopped me from going out and enjoying life. Through reading Stoicism I came to see that complaining the situation was unfair didn’t help me solve it. I had this debt – now what?

I went out and got a job, moved into a very run down share house, and started living off rice and beans. I kept thinking about Epictetus’ advice (“Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror.”) and Seneca’s habit of practicing poverty. The job was hard, the share house scary and the rice and beans pretty bland, but rather than feeling depressed I felt like I was slowly overcoming a mountain.

After a few years I managed to pay off the debt. I was very happy, not because I’d paid off the debt, but that I’d lived through this period of hardship without becoming depressed or angry (at least not for any significant amount of time). If I could live through gruel work, bad food and street crime (the share house was in a very rough area) I could face anything. By applying Stoicism I began to feel that no matter what the world throws at me I’m going to be OK.

Q: Chrysippus reputedly died laughing at one of his own jokes, about a donkey. Do you find much humour in the ancient Stoics’ sayings/writings?

Yes, I think the ancient Stoics are quite funny at times.

I often laugh at Epictetus because he’s so direct, he really doesn’t sugar coat any of his advice. He calls his students fools and blockheads (depending on your translation), and I imagine he’d be a pretty harsh teacher.

Marcus I think is funny when he’s making insights into human nature. He really didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the people around him (“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” etc.), and anyone reading today might get a few chuckles of recognition. Seeing that he was emperor and had to put up with all these people pestering him for something all the time, I’m sure a good sense of humour about the foibles of his fellow man must’ve been part of his Stoic toolbox.

I’m sure the ancient Stoics had a sense of humour. The story you mention about Chrysippus has always fascinated me. If I’m remembering this correctly he is supposed to have got a donkey drunk on wine then fed it figs while joking about it. I don’t know what was so funny about that (kind of sounds like animal cruelty to me), but I plan to find out in my next comedy festival show; “Michael Gets your Ass Drunk”.

Q: If he could time-travel to the present day, what do you think Marcus Aurelius would make of your act?

I think he’d be surprised to see his face on the t-shirt I’m wearing during the special, but he’d be immune to the flattery. He’d probably be a pretty tough audience; as I was telling the good jokes he’d be mentally preparing for the bad ones that were inevitably coming.

Q: What have you learned from audiences’ reactions to your Stoic routines?

That people have a hard time letting go of the idea that external events cause their emotions, rather than their interpretations of the events.

Whenever someone starts heckling or talking during one of my Stoic bits, nine times out of ten it’ll be this idea they’re taking issue with. It’s a bit wearying, I always feel like saying “Sir, philosophers have been pointing this out for over two thousand years now, I doubt you’ve got anything new to bring to the table…”

For a long time I was working on a routine about how people think others can shape their emotions; “He made me mad”, “she’s making me depressed”, etc. I never quite figured it out because I just can’t seem to find a funny way to explain that no one can make you feel anything unless they’ve got some sort of mind control powers. It seems people just don’t want to accept that truth.

I suspect this is partly because people don’t want to see the truth. It’s easier to say that someone else is making you feel bad, and therefore it’s up to them to change, than to go through the messy process of dealing with your own thoughts and emotions. This might be why Stoicism isn’t more of a mainstream philosophy, people don’t want to take full responsibility for their lives.

Having said that there are people who DO get it and they are wonderful. Some of the messages I’ve got through Facebook and YouTube are really wonderful, and I’m very glad that I could create something so many people have found useful.


Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

Michael Connell is a comedian, and MC, and a longstanding student of Stoic philosophy. You can watch his new stand up special, and find out all about his comedy and biography, on his website:

'Askesis in the Catskills' by Kenneth Posner

Askesis in the Catskills

by Kenneth Posner

posner catskills

Saturday evening after dinner, I drove out to the Catskills to make an attempt on the “Nine,” a challenging 19-mile circuit that crosses nine mountain peaks, of which five are accessed off trail, that is, by bushwhacking through the forest.  I’d run the Nine twice before during the day and once at night and also bagged eight of the nine during the winter.  But this time I’d be going without shoes, part of a quixotic quest to climb all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks barefoot.

Madness perhaps, but not without method.  Ancient Greek philosophers advocated the practice of “askesis,” which referred to a rigorous training discipline that was undertaken for both athletic and spiritual development.  Especially favored were practices that entailed endurance, resistance to the elements, or going without food and water.  The ultimate goal was to achieve a state of mind characterized by tranquility and equanimity, facilitating the operation of the will according to reason rather than driven by fear or unruly emotions.

Diogenes of Sinope (413-323 BCE), the Cynic philosopher whose ideas were widely influential among Stoics, believed that struggling against and overcoming the unruly passions was the key to living a life of tranquility. Inspired by the labors of Hercules, his practice of askesis included exercising on hot sands during summer and walking barefoot in snow during the winter, but arguably his whole life could be considered rigorous training ,as he lived outdoors year round with no possessions but a staff, satchel, and cloak. “Nothing in life has any chance of success without self-discipline,” he once said.

The philosophy of Epicurus (340-271 BCE) is today mistakenly identified with a devotion to sensual pleasures and fine food. But some of his ideas had a Stoic ring to them, for example, when he said “often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.” What he meant by pleasure was a state of tranquility free from irrational fear, and as for pain, he was an advocate of askesis.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55 BCE – 135 AD) was not a huge proponent of physical exercise, possibly because he was lame. But he believed that the “mind must be exercised both day and night,” and he suggested running, weightlifting, and jumping as efficient ways to tire the body and at the same time “nourish” the mind.

Accordingly, for this adventure in the Catskills, I decided to mix in some elements of askesis, with the goal of not just challenging body but also nourishing mind. In addition to hiking barefoot, I’d carry no food or water, and with the weather forecast calling for a low of 36 F, sleeping outside in the cold sounded like another fun option.  After further deliberation, I grabbed a light sleeping bag and tossed it in the pack.

It was already dark when I reached the trailhead.  The first objective was a lean-to about six miles in which would provide shelter for the evening and position me for an early start the next morning.  I stepped out tentatively onto the chilly trail, which was initially soft dirt but soon turned rocky and was flooded in places.  With the temperature falling quickly, the mud and standing puddles on the trail were painfully cold.  An owl hooted nearby, and then my flashlight flickered out.  I replaced the batteries.  After a very long time, I glanced down at my GPS watch to find that I hadn’t covered even three-quarters of a mile.  My sense of equanimity began to waiver, but I took a deep breath and kept on.

Now the trail rose steeply, and a full moon was visible hanging just above the far mountain wall, while the wind rushed overhead and then all around me.  After four or five hours, I arrived at the lean-to, only to find it occupied.  But I had a contingency plan, which was to move another mile along the trail and shelter next to a large sandstone boulder, and when I arrived out came the sleeping bag, as well as hat, gloves, extra shirt, and wool socks.  I went to sleep listening to the wind and feeling pleased with my progress, both physical and spiritual.

Sometime later I woke up.  Cold was seeping in from the ground.  Needless to say, this is why sensible hikers carry insulated sleeping pads. I shivered, shifted position, went back to sleep, and woke up again.  A statement from Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), came to mind. He had written in his Meditations, “Take away the complaint, ‘I am harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.” I imagined Marcus Aurelius out on campaign in the 2nd century AD, defending Rome from incursions by Germanic tribes. Undoubtedly he, too, had slept outdoors on the cold ground.

I found that if I concentrated on warming myself, this seemed to keep the shivers at bay, and so I marshalled all my mental focus, tried not to shiver, dozed off, and then woke up shivering again.  This pattern repeated itself for the duration of the night.

Eventually I opened my eyes to a blood-red sun hovering above the horizon.  It was time to get moving, and it was at first very slow going, with my feet tender from the seven-mile hike the night before, as I stepped over frozen puddles and eyed icicles hanging from nearby rocks.

After a mile on the trail it was time to turn into the woods.  The forest floor was covered in dry fir needles and broken branches, and I placed each step thoughtfully.  Then the slope turned steeply downhill, and here the ground was covered in moss and dead leaves, which were frozen stiff and thus quite slippery for bare feet.  I groped my way slowly, hanging onto tree branches and saplings, trying to maintain my composure and avoid falling on my butt.

Once the slope levelled out, I was able to make better progress, and my mood improved as I recognized the strange-looking leaf and flower buds of the Hobblebush, a common Catskills bush with white spring flowers, big floppy leaves that turn fluorescent colours in the fall, and long stems that tangle up unwary hikers. A familiar sight and a smile on my face – perhaps this was what Epicurus had in mind when he alluded to the pleasure that follows pain.

I continued to slowly bushwhack through the woods and reached the first three pathless summits without issue.  So far, so good. With two peaks climbed the night before, the count was now five of the nine done, with four to go.  As a bonus, it was a cloudless, crisp day, with cool air and bright sunshine.  Occasional breaks in the forest revealed distant peaks along the ridge.  I moved down a slope that had been baking in the morning sunlight. What a joy to finally step onto soft warm soil! A few steps later I was back in deep forest, shaded and silent.

And now things started to fall apart.  On the way to Friday, the fourth pathless peak, I got stuck in a dense thicket of fir and spruce with young trees growing so close together I couldn’t squeeze through without breaking off sharp branches or catching them in my shirt.  Usually these thickets open up after a few yards, you just have to be patient, but sometimes the thicket goes on and on until you find yourself trapped by dead trees that have toppled in crisscross patterns, blocking movement to the front and sides.

Any sense of tranquillity was soon dashed. I began swearing in frustration each time I got stuck on a branch, struggled over deadfall, or stepped on a sharp rock.  Part of the problem was I had promised my wife I’d be home by 6 PM, and now I realized I was at risk of being late.

Disappointing a spouse is never a good thing, and now anxiety spread across my mind like a cloud of smoke rising from a burning forest.  My attitude darkened, as I raged against perceived injustices — that I wasn’t as fast as other runners – that these thickets could still entangle me despite all my experience — and why was there never enough time to do what I wanted to do?

I marched on underneath a small dark cloud of angst, part of me wallowing in bad attitude, part of me realizing I was being childish, and so I kept moving on through the endless thicket, cursing at each new obstacle.

Marcus Aurelius had written: “If you feel pain from an external object, it is not this object that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement.” This is one of the core ideas of Stoic philosophy, but sometimes it is easier said than done. I suspect that Marcus Aurelius wrote this comment in his journal as a way to remind himself to keep a positive attitude while managing the affairs of the empire, which must have felt on many occasions every bit as entangling as the Catskills forest.

Eventually I emerged from the thicket, only to encounter a wall of cliffs.  I moved slowly along the base, stepping carefully over prickly brambles, until I discovered a cleft in the rocks where I could scramble up over steep moss-covered rocks, and then I wandered around in another spruce-fir thicket.

I finally located the summit, but it was now mid-afternoon. The count was six of the Catskills Nine completed barefoot, but time had run out, and my feet had had enough. I aborted the mission, put on a pair of sandals, and moved out as quickly as possible hoping I might somehow still honour my commitment to spouse.

Then I looked down and saw a mound of bright red peat moss.  I stared in amazement, having never before seen anything like this, and everything else was momentarily forgotten.

The way back included one last bushwhack, and it took forever to reach the trail.  I tried to make up time, but the path was rocky, my feet hurt even with sandals, and the pack kept jostling me in the back and throwing off my balance.  Pausing at a spring, I drank a handful of water and then limped down the last two miles to the car.

With this adventure in the Catskills over, it would be a fair question to ask whether the practice of askesis had taught me anything useful that could be applied to managing life in the real world. It would be hard to answer definitively. Epictetus wrote that while wool takes up certain colours immediately, there are others which it will not absorb unless soaked and steeped many times, and in this regard he was referring to the long period it may take to fully develop the practice of Stoic philosophy. Even a wise man may tremble, feel pain, and turn pale, he commented, “therefore let us press on and persevere.” Perhaps this is what the practice of askesis ultimately teaches.

The next day at work, a big project dropped onto my lap without warning, and a last minute conference call scrambled my evening plans.  Then I learned that a forest fire was threatening a race I help organize, necessitating last-minute contingency planning.  A not-for-profit board meeting left me feeling frustrated with fellow directors who didn’t agree with my point of view. Then it was off to the airport for a one-day business trip to South Dakota with the CEO of the company deciding to attend at the last minute.

All of this was aggravating, but upon reflection, I realized that I had learned something after all: that none of this was as bad as getting stuck in a Catskills spruce-fir thicket!

Kenneth Posner is a financial analyst, runner, and writer.  You can find additional articles by him at his blog, The Long Brown Path.

'My Stand-up Success Secret: The Dichotomy of Control' by Michael Connell

My Stand-up Success Secret: The Dichotomy of Control

by Michael Connell


Before I tell you a bit of my story, here is my new new comedy special.  As you can guess from the title, it uses and applies Stoic philosophy in a stand-up comedy context.

And now that you’ve seen that, here’s my story:

When I was getting started in stand up, I got to do some gigs with a guy called Dave who was not only a great comedian but (I realised later) was kind of a philosopher.

I’d probably only done a show or two at this point, but Dave was a seasoned veteran. In fact he was something of a legend of Australian comedy, and even though I was so new I’d heard he was something of a stand up genius.

Not wanting to miss this opportunity, when we were backstage waiting for the show to start, I asked if he had any tips. What advice could he give to a newbie like me just starting out in comedy?

“Everything’s your fault” said Dave.

I was sort of shocked and sat there stammering and wondering what I’d done wrong. Here I was, two or three gigs into my comedy career and all ready I’d somehow ruined everything. Seeing that I really didn’t get what he was trying to tell me Dave explained. “Whatever happens it’s on you. If you want to get anywhere you have to accept that it’s your fault, even when it’s not your fault.”

It’s my fault even when it’s not my fault? This was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard.

Dave tried to explain what he was saying by giving me this example; imagine you go out onstage, tell a joke and no one laughs. Whose fault is that?

Is it the audience’s fault? Were they too dumb to get what your joke was about? Were they not interested in watching the show? Well, that might be true. However if that’s the way you see things then there’s nothing you can do.

You can’t make the audience smarter so they get your material. You can’t force them to be polite and pay attention. If you decide that not getting a laugh is the audience’s fault all you can do is try and find another, smarter, audience.

If you decide the reason the joke didn’t get a laugh is your fault though, you have a lot of options.  You can write more accessible material, explain the set-up better, practice your performance so you can grab their attention, and so on.

It’s your fault, even when it’s not your fault.

This theory, said Dave, applied to everything in your comedy career. Even offstage. If you got onstage and the mic was faulty, that was because you hadn’t checked it. If you showed up to a venue and the audience was seated badly, it was your job to move them.

Even if the set-up for the night would make doing a comedy show impossible (the promoter wants you to perform to the Klan while hanging over a pit of crocodiles), a bad gig is still your fault because you failed to find out what they had planned and pull out before the gig started.

Other comedians would often joke about Dave’s habit of turning up early to gigs and adjusting lights and moving chairs. He always killed though, and was an amazing performer. According to Dave having the right mindset was what separated successful comedians from the rest.

Comedians who took responsibility for their successes, failures and everything else that happened to them learnt and improved and eventually became good acts. Performers who didn’t accept this responsibility, waited around for something to happen, blamed someone or something outside them when it didn’t, and then eventually quit.

I always thought this was great advice and tried to live by it through my comedy career.  Sometimes I’d try and tell other comedians, but they’d never really get it because I never knew how to explain this concept as well as Dave had put it to me.

“It’s always your fault” I’d say, and they’d reply that I was being ridiculous. How could I expect them to be responsible for everything? That’s not fair.

All I could say was that it worked for me.

And it really did. Even though I’ve never had any huge breaks, I’ve done quite well and managed to make a decent living for the last ten years or so. I’ve also felt happier and more in control than a lot of comedians I’ve worked with – at least they seemed a lot more angry, bitter or frustrated than I usually feel.

Mostly, I’ve put this down to Dave’s little “everything’s your fault” tip. Unlike a lot of other comedians who felt frustrated by some gatekeeper, I’ve usually managed to work around these obstacles and push ahead.  If I wasn’t getting booked at enough comedy gigs I’d organise my own shows.

When audiences didn’t laugh at a bit I’d rewrite the material until they did instead of just writing them off as dumb. When I couldn’t afford to hire a graphic designer I taught myself photoshop and made my own posters.

I found I also started using Dave’s tip in situations that had nothing to do with comedy. I remember getting into a fight with a girl and thinking “How is this my fault? What can I do to fix this?” Acting as if everything was my fault (even if it arguably wasn’t) really improved my life.

Turns out Dave wasn’t the first person to think of this. About ten years after Dave shared his little bit of wisdom with me, I read a book on philosophy called A Guide to the Good Life. This book was all about Stoicism, which is (I learnt) a form of ancient Greek and later Roman philosophy.

As I learnt about Stoicism I of course came across this quote by Epictetus:

Some things are in our control and others not.”

I was shocked. Here was Dave’s idea being espoused by an ancient Greek philosopher. What Dave had explained to me all those years ago was pretty much Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control. Just like Epictetus, Dave had argued that you should focus on the things you could control.

When faced with a problem you should look for what aspects of the situation you control by asking yourself “how is this my fault?”. Once you figure that part out you can start making changes to overcome whatever obstacle you’re facing.

Dave might not have explained the dichotomy as eloquently as Epictetus – the word “fault” is a bit accusatory – but his simple advice helped me deal with the many obstacles that come with a comedy career.

And the more I read about Stoicism, from its’ radical sense of responsibility to its’ concept of finding success through self mastery, the more I saw parallels with Dave’s ideas. Discovering this philosophy was called Stoicism, not Dave-ism, was quite a surprise. It was a weird feeling realising I’d sort of been following a system of philosophy I’d never heard about.

I never got to find out where Dave got his philosophy from. Unfortunately, I stumbled on to Stoicism several years after Dave had passed away.

There’s a lot of places he could have got his ideas from. Key ideas from Stoicism are also shared by Buddhist, Taoist and early Christian thought, and Stoic themes popping up in TV, film, books, and media from time. It’s possible that he read it in a book or saw something on TV.

However, my guess is that Dave learnt this philosophy from the school of hard knocks. The harsh nature of the comedy industry forcing him to come up with a way to manage and focus his energy.

Intense pressure often leads people towards developing Stoic outlooks. Prisoners, mountain climbers, and soldiers often express Stoic-ish ideas. Maybe the challenges of being a comedian force you to look at the world in a somewhat Stoic way?

Wherever Dave got his idea from it certainly helped me in my career and I’m sure it influenced my general world view too (although I didn’t realise it at the time).

Fast forward 10 years later and Stoicism’s influence on my comedy continues to grow. My latest comedy special uses core Stoic concepts to poke fun at our irrational responses to life’s ups and downs.

A lot of obstacles had to be overcome to create a comedy special like this, and now I’m facing the biggest one: releasing it online for the world to see.

How will people respond?

I hope they’ll like it, but that’s beyond my control.

Neither Dave nor the Stoics claimed that philosophy will get you everything you want – fame and fortune might never come no matter what you do – and are probably not worth pursuing anyway.

However if you focus on what you can control, you have have the peace of mind that comes from being the best you can be.

That’s what I’m aiming for.

Michael Connell is a comedian, and MC, and a longstanding student of Stoic philosophy. You can watch his new stand up special, and find out all about his comedy and biography, on his website:

'Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia' by Leah Goldrick

Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia

by Leah Goldrick


As the mother of a baby, I often hear admonitions and complaints from fellow parents about how hard parenting is and how stressful it can be to take care of children, particularly babies and toddlers. Sleep deprivation, constant work, loss of former lifestyle, expense, societal disregard for the importance of parenting, and lack of paid parental leave all top the list of concerns.

Much of what is said about the difficulty of modem parenting certainly has merit, but griping seems to have become endemic among parents, obscuring what should be a predominately joyful experience and a precious gift to family and society. This phenomenon is what Ross Douthat of the New York Times comically terms, “The parental pity party.”

Practising Stoics know that the quality of our thoughts about something dictate how we feel about it. With the right attitude, parenthood need not be a constant struggle; it can be fertile ground for eudaimonia, or a contented state of human flourishing, regardless of inherent hardships. This 2300-year-old philosophy is particularly applicable to common concerns that parents face today.

Concentrate Every Minute like a Roman on Doing What’s in Front of You – Focusing on the Present

Babies and small children require non-stop care. Parents often grumble about the amount of work that is involved in taking care of children, and how it must be accomplished in spite of everything else we have to do during the course of our busy day.  With the responsibility of having a baby in the house, it often happens that an entire day, or even a week will pass without me being able to cross various tasks off of my growing to-do list, which can be very discouraging.

Rather than thinking of childcare as labor, or as an impediment to achieving other goals, perhaps we should focus on present moment, on being with the child. Marcus Aurelius implores us to:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. … do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable… If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” [1]

Focusing on the present moment has helped to prevent me from being overwhelmed by responsibilities and anxieties about the future. Rather than the endless mental chatter of “Will the baby go down for his nap? Will I be able to get anything done today?” I concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. I am able to enjoy what I am doing more and not get bogged down by a pressing list of tasks and concerns.

Think That Being Inferior is Preferable to Being Ambitious – Societal Disregard for Parenting

One dilemma that American parents face is that society doesn’t seem to place as much value on the act of raising children as it does on pursuing a successful career or earning money. This is evidenced by the fact that the United States is the only country in the developed world without any paid parental leave. There is also a common tendency to look down on stay at home parents of both genders.

The later Stoic philosophers, including Seneca and Epictetus, deeply valued parenting as a gift to society. Musonius Rufus, best known for being Epictetus’ tutor, advocated for the philosophical education of women and pointed out that philosophy was particularly applicable to the raising of children and management of the household.

Like Musonius, we must remember that regardless of cultural paradigms, philosophy applies just as much to the domestic aspects of life as it does to our career or financial matters. His comments on the necessity of virtue for raising children and running a household could today apply to either gender:

In the first place a woman must run her household and pick out what is beneficial for her home. In these activities I claim that philosophy is particularly helpful, since each of these activities is an aspect of life, and philosophy is nothing other than the science of living, and the philosopher, as Socrates says, continually contemplates this, ‘what good or evil has been done in his house.[2]

Now, wouldn’t the woman who practises philosophy be just, and a blameless partner in life, and a good worker in common causes, and devoted in her responsibilities towards her husband and her children, and free in every way from greed or ambition? Who could be like this more than the woman who practises philosophy, since she must inevitably think that doing wrong is worse than being wronged, because it is more disgraceful to do wrong, and to think that being inferior is preferable to being ambitious, and in addition, to love her children more than her own life. [3]

Endure and Renounce – Adjusting Your Attitude

A popular parenting book entitled All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, stresses that parents are often less happy than their childless peers because of their expectations about parenting. The author, Jennifer Senior, posits that parents often believe having children will make them happier, but the reality of dirty diapers and 3:00 AM awakenings is vastly more difficult than they had anticipated. Many parents are well into their 30s and financially independent by the time they have children, and are distressed at having to give up the lifestyle, hobbies, freedom and income that they once had.

I can say that I sometimes experienced similar feelings as a new parent, but when I changed my expectations about what life with a baby would be like, my attitude transformed. Rather than ruminating on the fact that I can’t easily go hiking, mountain biking, or out for dinner like I used to, I remember Epictetus’ instruction, “Endure and renounce.” [4]

By bringing our values into accord with the Stoic virtue of sophrosyne, or moderation, we remember that life isn’t about being entertained and having fun; such things are indifferent for our happiness. Since only virtue is necessary for happiness, being good and doing good, our lives shouldn’t be spent in pursuit of indifferent distractions.

I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything; I am able to be of service to my son. Being of service to others is a good, and that is enough. Our lives as parents should be as simple and unstressful as possible.  This may mean living on less money, saying no to unnecessary obligations, or finding satisfaction and joy in small things. According to Seneca “What is good is that I choose well.” [5]

Quickly Return to Yourself – Remembering What You Can Control

Many aspects of parenthood are out of our control. We do not control our child’s temperament, his sleep, his health, and so on. While sleep deprivation is a given, a baby’s sleep, or lack thereof, is not fully within our control. It is easy to feel frustrated after pulling yourself from your warm bed in the middle of the night for the fifth time, and equally hard to be philosophical when operating on very little sleep. Parenting well, indeed living well, relies on being able to keep your emotions in check and your perspective on a situation relatively placid even if the situation is difficult.

According to Marcus Aurelius, “When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” [6]

Instead of thinking, “Dear God, why won’t my son sleep?” I try to remind myself that not only is this is phase quite temporary, but it’s in a baby’s nature to wake up at night. I cannot control his nature. I find it helpful to keep my thoughts confined to what I can control; how respond to him.

Since I cannot change my son’s nature, I also don’t worry about comparing his sleep habits to those of other babies, or about trying to “train,” him to sleep. I try not to become frustrated each time the situation changes, because like everything in life, it is transitory.

Rather than worrying about the pressure of culture to produce a perfect child, who always sleeps through the night, remember, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.” [7]

It is Difficult to be Good at Helping – Reflecting on Mistakes

Certainly no one can be the perfect parent, always mentally tranquil and perfectly composed, given the inherent frustrations involved with raising children. The best we can do is to be good helpers and role models for our children, continually striving for excellence.

Even Seneca admits that it is difficult to be good at helping others. But if we are to help, he advises that we should do so graciously, rather than complaining about our situation.  “We are evasive and assist only grudgingly. No wonder that our reticence sticks out more in people’s minds than the fact that we eventually relented; no wonder that we are not held in esteem for such ungracious giving.” [8]

It is inevitable that as parents, we will fail to live up to the Stoic ideal, or occasionally gripe about our lives. Fortunately, each day provides a new opportunity to meditate on and improve our conduct, to find joy, and to learn from our mistakes. “How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.” [9]

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.


[1] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 2:5.

[2] Lutz, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates (1947).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion (2004).

[5] Seneca, Letter 92. 11-12

[6]  Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 6:11

[7] Ibid., 6:52

[8] Seneca, On Benefits, I.1.8.

[9] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 11:7

'Frederick the Great: A Stoic on the Throne?' by Kevin Kennedy

Frederick the Great: A Stoic on the Throne?

by Kevin Kennedy

Fred is Great

‘Oh you, Marcus Aurelius,
my exemplar and my hero. . .
Frederick II. (“the Great”)’

Marcus Aurelius’ most prominent 18th century admirer was the Prussian king Frederick the Second, also known as “Frederick the Great” (reigned 1740-1786). To this day, when popular philosophy writers want to show the significance of Stoicism, they often mention that how it influenced Frederick the Great.[1] Frederick did indeed hold the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher (reigned 161-180) in high regard. For example, he had many statues of Marcus placed throughout his summer residence, Sanssouci (“Without Care”). This magnificent complex, consisting of a baroque park and rococo palaces, reveals much about Frederick’s personality; and visitors to Sanssouci encounter Aurelius at almost every turn. His busts stand near the major entrances to the park, in the king’s study and overlooking his grave. But how did Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy influence Frederick and his policies as king? Was Frederick the Great a “Stoic on the Throne”?

Frederick’s interest in philosophy began when he was a young man. His mother, Sophie Dorothy of Hannover (a daughter of George I. of England and Hannover), encouraged her son’s intellectual and artistic proclivities. Under the tutelage of his French Huguenot governors, young Frederick devoured novels and discovered his talent for playing the traverse flute. In time, he also developed a passion for Enlightenment philosophy. Works by thinkers like Pierre Bayle, Christian Thomasius, Christian Wolff and above all Voltaire became his constant companions.

But Frederick’s father, Frederick William I (reigned 1713-1740), viewed such pursuits with disdain. Frederick William was a mercurial tyrant, given to fits of violent rage followed by tearful remorse. A pious Calvinist who nevertheless indulged in notorious beer-banquets known as “tobacco collegia,” Frederick William devoted his reign to turning his poor and backward kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia into a “formidable power.” The key to state security, he believed, was to build up a mighty army supported by a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy. This “Soldier-King” viewed art, literature and music as a waste of time at best and a temptation to sin at worst. Determined to make a man out of his “effeminate chap” of a son, Frederick William subjected him to merciless humiliations and beatings.

By the time he was 18, Frederick could take no more. He planned to flee to the court of his uncle, George II of England, hoping to take along with him his closest companion, a 26-year-old cavalry officer named Hans-Hermann von Katte. But the attempt failed. Frederick and Katte were arrested, Katte was sentenced to death by beheading and Frederick was forced to witness the execution. Frederick’s ensuing fortress confinement only ended after he reluctantly agreed to marry Elizabeth of Brunswick. As soon as his father died, Frederick sent his wife into a kind of social exile. (The marriage remained without children; Frederick was succeeded by his nephew.) Considering everything Frederick had suffered by the time he became king at age 28, it is no wonder that he would find Stoicism, a philosophy of viewing hardship as an opportunity to develop inner strengths, a persuasive way of viewing the world.

When Frederick assumed the throne in May 1740, many hoped that he would usher in a new period of peace, prosperity and happiness. One of these was Voltaire, who had begun to correspond with Frederick four years earlier. (Voltaire had also assisted Frederick with the publication of his anonymous book, Anti-Machiavelli, in which Frederick argued that a prince should not be motivated by base power interests, but by a deep concern for the well-being of his subjects.) At the beginning of their friendship, Voltaire declared that a prince like Frederick, who had devoted himself to the study of philosophy, could lead his people “back into the Golden Age.” The first weeks and months of Frederick’s reign seemed to confirm such hopes. Frederick opened the granaries (substantially reducing the price of bread), abolished most forms of torture and censorship, and built a royal opera house open to all. Moreover, he began a series of judicial reforms that would culminate in the General Law Code, a kind of constitution that went a remarkable distance toward establishing equality before the law in Brandenburg-Prussia.

At the same time, however, Frederick also increased the size of the army. In December 1740, he attacked Austria without warning and seized its richest province, Silesia (now mostly southwestern Poland). Prussia and Austria would fight a series of three wars over this territory. Frederick would emerge victorious, but only after having driven his kingdom to the brink of destruction. The war destroyed large swathes of Prussia and cost the lives of several hundred thousand soldiers. In 1772, Frederick also initiated the first partition of Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia (after the third partition in 1795, Poland would cease to exist as a state). Even at the time, critics described Polish partition as the crime of the century. But once more Frederick had made progress toward his goal of increasing the size and population of his kingdom. Through his reforms, the Silesian Wars and the first partition of Poland, Frederick elevated Brandenburg-Prussia to the status of a European Great Power. He also left behind a controversial legacy still being debated today.

But how do Frederick’s aggressive actions fit with his admiration for Marcus Aurelius? The answer lies in the fact that Frederick’s interest in Stoicism only began long after he had come to power. In letters to his favourite sister, Wilhelmine of Bayreuth-Ansbach, for example, he described his first encounter with the Meditations: They were “a little Stoic” for his taste!  In later correspondence, he assured her that there was no danger he was becoming a Stoic. “This is a morality for statues and lifeless beings”, he wrote. Marcus Aurelius treated people as though they were “lifeless beings with no sensitivities.” At the time, Epicurus was more to his liking.

In truth, Frederick’s first ancient role models were not philosophers at all but warriors. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were the men he most wanted to emulate. As anyone who studies the life and times of Frederick the Great will soon recognize, the most powerful motivation of his behaviour was not the desire to achieve wisdom but to win military glory. “Of all the goods life has to offer”, he wrote, “is fame by far the greatest; long after the body has become dust, the great name lives on.” And the quickest path to fame was through a victorious war. Upon marching into Silesia, Frederick even equated his action with Julius Caesar’s exploits, declaring that he had “crossed the Rubicon”.

Marcus Aurelius only became an exemplar for Frederick after his lust for fame had brought him to the brink of annihilation in the Third Silesian War (the European theatre of the Seven Years War, 1756-1763). At the battle of Kunersdorf on August 12, 1759, Frederick suffered the greatest calamity of his military career. Within the course of a day, a combined Austrian-Russian force decimated Frederick’s army and left him contemplating suicide. “Our loss is very large,” he wrote to one of his generals, “of the 48,000 soldiers I had before the battle, there are only 3,000 left. They’re all in flight, and I am no longer in command of my men . . . I can’t survive the downfall of my state. Goodbye for ever.” Fortunately for Frederick, however, his enemies failed to follow up on their victory and crush him once and for all. (Frederick himself spoke of a “miracle.”) He then replenished his army and re-joined the fight. Finally, the death of his most dangerous enemy, Elizabeth of Russia, in January 1762, caused the anti-Prussian alliance to unravel and allowed Frederick to triumph.

The path to victory had been full of hardship, but in the depths of his despair Frederick had discovered Stoic resolve. In July 1762, for instance, he confided to his court reader that he was “ashamed” of his current military campaign, and he was struggling to adopt a Stoic attitude toward his difficult situation. “It’s not the turn of events I hoped for . . . I can only find rest with the greatest difficulty. So far Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have the upper hand, but often nature becomes more powerful and causes philosophy to be silent.”

But Stoicism also had another, more political use for Frederick the Great. It allowed him to portray himself as a Stoic hero bravely withstanding the onslaught of fate, while avoiding the question of his own responsibility for his predicament. In a letter to the philosopher Marquis D’Argens, he wrote: “You see what sort of progress I’m making; certainly every other would also have become, like myself, a second Marcus Aurelius, if he had, through the course of seven military campaigns, been cast about as a ball by fortune and served his more powerful enemies as an object of derision”. There is no question that Frederick survived the darkest days of the war with an astonishing will to prevail. Surrounded by his foes, with most of his soldiers dead, captured or deserted, and not enough food or ammunition for the rest, every objective consideration dictated that Frederick sue for peace. But he refused. It was this, his iron determination to overcome apparently insurmountable odds, that guided him to victory and earned him the name “Frederick the Great.”  This supplied a dangerous legacy for Germany, though, for when the nation later found itself in hopeless military situations, Frederick was often held high as a reminder that victory was always possible, if the only the national will remained unbroken.

The problem, from a Stoic perspective, is that discussions of Frederick’s own travails tend to ignore the suffering he brought upon others. After all, Frederick himself had begun the Silesian Wars with an unprovoked assault on Austria. The soldiers who fought and died for Frederick were also never asked if they wanted to participate in his quest for glory. After the disaster at Kunersdorf, Frederick even added insult to injury by trying to place the blame on his troops. The battle had been lost, he claimed, because his soldiers were “cowards.” Imagine Marcus Aurelius saying something like that.  He refused to accept the truth: his men fled because he had sent them into a murderous barrage without first properly reconnoitering the battlefield. Also largely forgotten in the history books are the other victims of Frederick’s wars: the crippled veterans, the widows and the orphans, most of whom were reduced to begging. No one who had experienced the joyful days of Frederick’s first few months as king could have ever imagined it would one day come to this.

The contradictory nature of Frederick’s rule was not lost on his contemporaries. Voltaire himself reminded Frederick of it: “How much longer will you, you and your fellow office-holders, cover the world with wars? This world which, so you say, you only want to improve?” Frederick failed to receive such criticism in a Stoic spirit. “Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, and Julius Caesar constantly fought wars,” he lamented, “but the philosophers nevertheless give them praise. Why do they then scold the modern rulers, who are here only following the example of the ancients?” One could answer that, with the Enlightenment, war was beginning to lose its nimbus. Not long after Frederick’s death, one of his subjects, a philosophy professor named Immanuel Kant, would write a famous essay on the need for “perpetual peace.”

While it is true that Marcus Aurelius also led troops into battle, he only fought defensive wars. Moreover, Marcus tried to limit the suffering of civilians as much as possible. When the cost of war threatened to bankrupt the Roman Empire, Marcus raised new revenue by auctioning off the artwork and furnishings of his palaces. This measure spared the populace onerous new taxes. Frederick the Great, faced with the same dilemma, chose instead to debase the currency. This measure led to a horrendous inflation, which only increased the sufferings of his already destitute populace. Furthermore, by the 18th century, Marcus was not primarily remembered as a warrior but as a wise and just ruler. As the first sentence of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shows, the reign of Marcus Aurelius was thought by many to be the happiest moment in the history of humankind.[2] And while it is also the case that other “modern rulers” of Europe, such as Louis XIV of France, Charles XII of Sweden, Joseph of Austria and Catherine of Russia waged war, none of them tried to portray him- or herself as a “second Marcus Aurelius.”

As mentioned above, a bust of Marcus Aurelius still watches over the grave of Frederick the Great. But only from a distance of several metres. Located directly at Frederick’s final resting place are representations of other Roman rulers: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. While some of these men enacted important reforms, each one of them was a tyrant. Frederick too was no Stoic on the throne, but an absolutist ruler whose chief concern was his own fame. Frederick’s vainglory certainly had some beneficial effects, but it also helped bring about death and destruction on a scale unknown in central Europe since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

And yet, in February 1775, Voltaire still hadn’t abandoned all of his hopes for Frederick. The world had largely forgotten Marcus’ military victories, Voltaire told the king, but his Meditations had earned him eternal renown. Frederick, he continued, was now Marc-Aurèle-Julien Frédéric, héros de la guerre et de la philosophie [Marcus-Aurelius-Julius Frederick, hero of warfare and philosophy]”. Voltaire was wrong. For most of the two centuries following his death, Frederick was far more remembered for his battles than for his books. To most of the people who come to Sanssouci today, he is little more than a tourist attraction. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, is still remembered first and foremost as a philosopher. Frederick the Great appropriated the legacy of Marcus Aurelius for the sole purpose of presenting himself as a wise monarch who placed the happiness of his people above his own well-being. The reality, as we have seen, was somewhat more complicated. If Frederick had set out to lead a virtuous life (in the Stoic sense), the he would have done well to not just quote Marcus’ philosophy but also to practice it. This, perhaps, is the one lesson Frederick the Great still holds for Stoics today.


Kevin Kennedy is a 53-year-old German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at

[1] For example, in “the Big Messy Tent of Modern Stoicism,” Jules Evans writes:  “There have always been people drawn to Stoicism, from Montaigne to Frederick the Great to the novelist Tom Wolfe.”

[2] “If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva (a.d. 96) to the death of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 180). The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”

'The Police Officer as Stoic' by Peter Villiers

The Police Officer as Stoic

by Peter Villiers

Police officer

Albert Camus began his study of the rebel by asking:[1] “Who is a rebel”? The answer is someone who says no. We begin by asking: “Who is a Stoic?”. To which we answer, not necessarily someone who has read and absorbed the reflections of Marcus Aurelius, but again, someone who says no.

No to obsequiousness and flattery. No to career-mindedness. No to expecting that others, even members of his own profession, will understand and accept his values and motivation, which may be rather different to their own.  Most occupations, I would suggest, do not acknowledge and reward Stoicism. The Stoic, indeed, may be seen as eccentric; unsociable; not a team player: a useful person to have around during an emergency, perhaps, but not someone in whose presence others are always comfortable. The Stoic does what he believes to be right, not to impress others, but to impress himself.

Is virtue, then, its own reward? Not quite; for Stoicism does not rest upon any commonplace notion of reward or punishment, even if those concepts be individually generated and judged. The average police officer is not, we would suggest, a declared Stoic; and nor would it necessarily be beneficial if he were.

Nevertheless, the virtues of the Stoic are worth considering within the context of policing by consent. Police work is demanding. Contrary to its normal portrayal, the virtues it requires are patience; determination; the ability not to be deterred or distracted by irrelevant considerations; an awareness of human frailty and weakness, together with the ability to withstand a consequent assumption of cynicism – in a word, Stoicism.

These are not, however, the virtues for which police officers are necessarily rewarded; and the popular image in the media, in police recruiting publicity, and even in the carefully constructed memoirs of retired police officers, does not always reflect the reality of the work that will be encountered.

What do police officers actually do, on a day-to-day basis?  Work which, if they are honest, industrious and disinterested in their labour, reflects the virtues of Stoicism.


–     much of police work is dull;

–     nevertheless, it often presents a conflict of objectives;

–     the police do not direct the criminal justice system; and

–     victims are not always cared for, nor villains punished.[2]

How, then, are we to see police work as benefiting from being carried out from within a Stoical framework – especially as Professor Christopher Gill in his article on Stoic virtue, points towards a respect for justice as being one of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism? Let us examine the Stoic conception of justice a little further, within the context of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism.

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism Applied to Policing

Professor Gill explores the basis of Stoicism as resting on four values: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice. These four virtues are inter-related and mutually supportive, and none works on its own in the absence of the other three.How does this relate to policing?


A good police officer needs wisdom, in the sense of professional skill: what tends to be described in policing recruiting folklore as judgement.  A good police officer can prevent a riot, simply by the way in which he approaches a crowd; and a bad police officer can cause one.  What is the difference?  Something that cannot necessarily be taught, and is not necessarily acquired simply by experience: judgement.  (The capacity to reflect on experience, however, is an extremely useful characteristic in any police officer: and what are Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations but his own reflections on his own experience?  Was he the original ‘reflective practitioner’, and are we entitled to speculate as to how much he might have questioned the use of such a phrase?)


Courage is a necessary quality for any police officer: both physical courage and the moral courage to stand up for what he believes to be his duty, whether in the face of the mob or the disapproval of his own colleagues in the aftermath of an unpopular decision and action (such as in reporting one of them for a dereliction of duty.)

The Golden Mean

We may note here that Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean is of considerable value in considering the identification of the true meaning of courage.  We seek police officers who are neither recklessly impetuous (without fear, and therefore easily capable of putting their colleagues in avoidable danger), nor ‘lacking in moral fibre’, and therefore incapable of displaying courage when it is needed.

We may note, however, that the Stoically inclined police officer does not necessarily attack and blame his colleagues if they fail to show the qualities, in action, which he believes to be commensurate with good policing.  What counts is his behaviour.

Self-control or Moderation

Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing,[4] is supposed to have said that the police constable’s most important requirement was a perfect command of temper.  (We say ‘supposed’, for there is a certain element of myth about the foundation of the New Police, soon to become the Metropolitan Police Service under joint commissioners). Be they real or mythical, Peel’s words represent a fundamentally Stoic view, appositely expressed.


Police officers must desire to achieve justice (i.e. the notion that the guilty should be identified, arrested, tried, convicted and punished – and, we presume, that the virtuous should be rewarded), for otherwise their work lacks a justifying rationale.

Policing is in essence a moral activity, not in the sense that ethics and law coincide, although they should bear some relationship to each other, but in that a good police officer believes that criminal activity is not just illegal but wrong: although there is an infinitely adjustable scale of wrongness, and a working police officer makes good use of his discretion as to when and how to enforce the law.

We would expect the police officer to feel a healthy moral outrage at the carrying out of certain crimes, such as in the abuse of children; and to exercise an immoderate commitment towards their investigation.  As we have seen in regard to other virtues, however, moderation is generally desirable, and there is a fine but needed barrier between the passionate pursuit of justice and the blind desire for vengeance which is the hall-mark of the vigilante.

Police officers need to be aware that:

a) justice, however defined, cannot always be achieved;

b) that they play an investigative part in the criminal justice system, and not a judicial one.

Moreover, there is a necessary element of pragmatism to the police mentality.  The fundamental purpose of policing, where there is a conflict of objectives, is not to serve justice but to keep the peace.  Thus, for example, one does not arrest a leading criminal when his arrest at that time and place is likely to provoke a riot.  One hopes to do it later: for the police officer must be able to take a long-term view, and to cope with the frustration of his occasional inability to achieve a short-term objective.

Effective Policing by Consent Requires Stoic Qualities

The British police service attempts to put into practice the doctrine of policing by consent; and this places an additional demand on the virtue of the police officer. Before I can show how policing by consent requires Stoic qualities, let me explain in detail what policing by consent involves.

What does it mean, to police by consent?  In essence, it removes the supports of policing by authority on which the police officer might otherwise have relied, and places its major weight upon the shoulders of the individual police officer. Policing by consent rests upon the constitutional position of the police officer under common law, that he holds his powers as an individual and not as a subordinate.No one may order him to enforce the law, and to where, when and how it is his responsibility to do so.  Firstly, he has discretion, and there will be many occasions on which he may choose not to exercise his powers (but not to ignore his responsibilities.)  Secondly, although he has superior officers within the organisation, and the police service as a whole has some aspects of a military or paramilitary organisation, the image is a misleading one.  Senior police officers do not command, as do army officers; and the constable retains his original powers, for which he is accountable in court.  If asked: “Why did you arrest this man?”  The answer: “Because I was ordered to do so” is not the right answer. Furthermore, policing by consent is the opposite to policing by force, or, paradoxically, by authority. Policing by force is simply the exercise of brute strength; and, we would argue, the person being policed (the victim, as it were) is under no moral obligation to accept the dictates of the police officer, although he may well find himself physically compelled to do so. Policing by authority, however, is quite another matter; although it may also involve the use of force.  If the police force (or service: the choice of word is significant, at least in terms of aspiration) is policing by authority, then it has legitimacy, and the subject should accept the actions of the police officer as intended to serve the common good (provided, in modern terms, that those actions are within the law, and necessary, and proportionate – and so on.)

What does Policing by Consent Require?

What we shall argue is for key factors, a combination of which tends to suggest the presence of policing by consent, and an absence of a significant number of which may indicate or precipitate its withdrawal. Those factors are not necessarily constant over time, and nor are they finite in number. However, there is what we might call a critical combination of successful factors, which good police leaders need to keep in mind if they are to be able to continue to police without force, or with only such force as is tactically necessary.

                Those factors include:

  • upholding the rule of law, which means, most importantly, the police not seeing themselves as above the law;
  • not acting as a political police, but preferring to deal with ‘crime ordinary’;
  • maintaining a visible presence in the community;
  • remaining an unarmed and civil police, and not a paramilitary organization;
  • preferring to use persuasion rather than coercion where possible;
  • tending to use the official power of the law as a last resort;
  • attempting to balance the rival interests at stake in any conflict, and find a common sense solution in which no-one is an absolute loser;
  • emphasising the original authority and discretion of the constable as an officer of the law—which means considerable variation in how problems are dealt with;
  • playing a specific and constrained role in the criminal justice system;
  • defining its other duties inclusively rather than exclusively;
  • not being directly accountable to central government, but recognising and applying the principle of accountability in everything that it does;
  • attempting to be and remain locally recruited, responsive and accountable;
  • showing that the idea of the police as a friend in need is not entirely mythical.

Policing by consent is a renewable, organic and realistic doctrine. It implies that the police service engages with a dialogue with the public both as to its duties and modus operandi. That dialogue will, of course, include the propensity of the public to complain about the police. Complaints are a good thing, in that they indicate that the complainant believes that it to be both safe and worthwhile to make a complaint. The same logic applies to the police complaining about the public, for example in not volunteering information that would help to solve crimes.

Policing by consent is an organic doctrine. Its tenets cannot always be neatly separated into philosophy, doctrine or style; and it is not necessarily the case that top police leaders deal with policy, intermediate commanders with strategy, and more junior officers with tactics—although police training manuals would like to have us believe that this is so. In reality, policing by consent is an organic doctrine that cannot easily be separated into its constituent parts, nor applied by one section of a police service in isolation from its other parts.

Policing by consent is a realistic doctrine.One of the problems of the performance management culture, in its various manifestations, is the sometimes huge disparity between what the organization is supposed to be doing, according to its official policies, priorities and procedures, and what is actually going on. Our comments here are certainly not restricted to policing, but apply to other public sector organizations. We would suggest that what happens at street level is both the reality of policing, by definition, and more likely to correspond to the practice of policing by consent. Police officers are street-corner politicians, and their essential role is to negotiate between conflicting parties and find a way forward.[5]

The reality of policing by consent includes negative as well as positive factors. Policing by consent is not necessarily the best solution to any problem. It may not appear the most efficient way to make use of the resources available to the police; and it is bound to give rise to disparities between the apparent productivity of one force, unit or officer and another. We would argue, however, that improvements in efficiency do not necessarily lead to corresponding improvements in effectiveness; and that policing by consent is the most effective form of policing for the United Kingdom.

Returning to Stoicism: Why is Policing by Consent an Inherently Stoic Doctrine?

I now give three links between policing by consent and Stoicism, the first two being shared qualities of character which both require and the third being an example of the need to respond to a difficult situation with qualities that that situation demands.


Because, more than any other style of policing, it places a fundamental onus on the individual police officer to exercise his discretion on all occasions as to how to interpret and enforce the law.

A scrupulous and unaffected dignity

The police officer is, at least in theory, both omni-competent and autonomous; and his role requires the continuous exercise of judgement.  Moreover, there is an immense satisfaction to be obtained from proper police work, founded upon the principle of policing by consent, which allows the individual officer rise above, as it were, the inevitable restrictions and frustrations of his work.  As Gill puts it, translating Marcus Aurelius:

‘At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from all other concerns. You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles.’ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5.

Listening and acting: a worked example

Policing by consent means, in effect, taking a variety of shades of opinion into account before choosing a course of action, and is therefore not always a popular option with the police service’s ‘natural’ supporters.  Consider the example of hunting.  Before hunting with dogs was banned under current legislation (2004), the police faced a considerable difficulty in policing hunts where protest was active.

The hunters, many of whom would have seen themselves as ‘natural’ supporters of the police, and indeed included magistrates, judges and police officers amongst their number, tended to see the role of the police as to ensure that protesters and ‘hunt saboteurs’ were stopped in their tracks and that the hunt was enabled to progress.  The protesters, on the other hand, and especially the saboteurs, tended to condemn hunting as a barbaric activity which should be stopped by any means possible.

And what of the police themselves?  My impression, from many conversations with police officers, was that they resented having their allegiance taken for granted – by either side.  Hunting was, before 2004, a lawful activity. On the other hand, peaceful and law-abiding protest was also a lawful activity: and a sensible police service supports and indeed facilitates the right to demonstration and legitimate if impassioned protest (and did so before the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into domestic law with effect from 2000 A.D. gave legal substance to what had been previously a common law tradition.)

What, then, are police officers to do, when faced with one group which is determined to sabotage the activities of another? It is here that Stoic qualities, once more, come into the picture. In short, the police officers are to look:

–    To do their duty honestly and vigorously, ‘without fear or favour’;

–    To be aware that they cannot please everyone, and that indeed by not ‘taking sides’ they are liable to be unpopular with both sides in any essentially arid confrontation; and

–    To be constantly aware that, if virtue is not necessarily its own reward, there is an absence of alternatives.  Policing by consent, whether in regard to managing protest, investigating domestic violence, or dealing with community conflicts, as well as an almost infinite range of other issues, requires a long term investment by the police officer, in the face of what may be unrealistic expectations – with the pay-off, as it were, remaining the sometimes somewhat grim satisfaction of doing one’s duty.


Police work, under any system or doctrine of policing, can place considerable demands on the individual police officer.Those demands are exacerbated under the doctrine of policing by consent, with its emphasis upon dialogue and negotiation, and its view of the exercise of brute force as a last resort – or rather, one of a range of tactics and possibilities open to the thinking police officer, rather than an immediate and obvious response (see, for example, controversies in the use of TASER.) The good police officer finds the golden mean in his choice of behaviour; does not expect too much of the public, or indeed of his colleagues on some occasions; and maintains a cautious and pragmatic optimism in his view of human nature. He is neither naive nor unduly cynical, and is prepared to accept failure as a part of his work.  Policing has been described as a Sisyphean task.  Is it?  Quite possibly: but it has to be done.

We could supply many references on the meaning and doctrine of Stoicism, as an academic pursuit.  Need we do so?  Let us rather conclude our main argument by saying what it means to be Stoic, as the adjective is used in everyday speech. To be Stoical means to be able to accept what fate has to offer, with neither despair nor disillusionment.  To accept disappointment, if not with equanimity, then with a full command of one’s emotions.  And to continue to believe in doing one’s duty.  In this sense, it is a good creed for a working police officer – whether policing by authority or consent. The rewards, in other words, come from within.


[1]  Camus, Albert (2000) The Rebel Penguin Modern Classics.

[2] (eds.) Adlam, Robert and Villiers, Peter (2003) Police Leadership in the 21st Century:Philosophy, Doctrine & Developments, Waterside Press, Winchester, p.3 and passim.

[3] Adlam and Villiers (2003).

[4] Ker Muir Jr., William (1977) Police: Street Corner Politicians, Chicago, p.7.

Peter Villiers served as a army officer in the 1970s, working closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the height of the troubles.  He went on to join the directing staff at the national police staff college at Bramshill in Hampshire, where he gained a wider knowledge of policing as a global enterprise; began to write about policing; and ended his formal employment as head of human rights.  He has published a large number of books, articles and essays on policing, ethics and human rights, some in company with his fellow tutor and author, Dr Robert Adlam. Peter Villiers is a Stoic by inclination rather than by training, what follows is a result of personal reflection rather than a course of study. It has become increasingly clear to him that the virtues of a Stoic are the virtues of a good police officer, and in this essay he relates those virtues to the requirements of policing by consent.

'How to Become Virtuous' by Tim LeBon

How to become virtuous – Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)

by Tim LeBon

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus AureliusMeditations 6.21

Many people are attracted to Stoicism because it seems to  offer something more profound than the usual self-help palliatives. Stoicism proposes philosophy as a foundation for wise living. One aim of the Stoicism Today project has always been to increase awareness of Stoic ideas and practices. The Stoicism Today team has written booklets, recorded guided meditations, started Facebook groups and given workshops at annual conferences to help spread Stoicism.  At the same time it has aimed not merely to disseminate information about Stoicism but also to test Stoicism out and develop it into a modern Stoicism. To this end the Stoicism Today team has designed and administered  questionnaires, emphasised  some elements of Stoicism more than others  and incorporated a number of ideas from contemporary psychology. Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.21) alludes to one way to achieve personal and philosophical growth, namely to treat criticism as useful feedback. In this article I want to tackle two criticisms of Stoicism. By addressing them I hope to  work towards making Modern Stoicism  even more wise and helpful.

Two comments about Stoicism have  given me particular cause for reflection. One came from participants at the  London Stoic Conference  of  2014.   They pointed out that whilst many speakers had talked the importance of virtue, they hadn’t fully explained what virtue was or how we could become more virtuous.  My Stoicism Today colleague Christopher Gill has since responded to the question  What is Stoic virtue?.[i]  He points out that the cardinal virtues are not plucked out of thin air.

“Taken together they [the virtues]  make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection”

The Stoic cardinal virtues then are key qualities required to flourish as a human being. Here I will look at the second part of the question – how to become more virtuous. To be sure there is already much in Stoicism and the Stoic Week handbook  about  developing virtue. This is not the place to rehearse the  plentiful advice contained in the handbook. On careful examination, though, it could be argued that much of this (for example counsel such as “control the controllables” and “only virtue really matters”) relates more to to Stoic wisdom  than the other specific virtues.  One approach would be to collect all the Stoic maxims we can find about specific virtues – and this would actually be a very useful thing to do – the question is – what else can we do?

How to best build justice, self-control, courage, wisdom and other virtues is essentially an empirical question. One of the key take-home points from contemporary psychology is this:- Whilst  some plausible methods  turn out to work well, other, equally plausible ideas do not.[ii] Thinking about how to develop virtue in our armchairs will only get us so far. A promising idea is to look at  modern evidence-based psychologies to see if they can tell us anything about how to develop virtue.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness

Two obvious candidates are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness.  Perhaps they could help us be more virtuous.  Although the focus of CBT is traditionally on reducing emotional distress rather than building virtue, CBT has a huge evidence base and should not be dismissed too lightly. We can certainly use CBT to help us develop the habit of thinking  more realistically and constructively, which is definitely part of wisdom.  Furthermore CBT practitioners have developed a large toolkit of techniques that can be adapted to build individual virtues. Behavioural experiments, guided discovery, exposure to feared situations, thought records and   formulation – to name but a few CBT tools – could all be adapted to help develop virtue. [iii] For example, to build courage you could challenge unhelpful negative thinking (“great harm will come to me if I tell the truth”) and develop behavioural experiments – for example “plan to do one act of courage today, record your predictions as to negative and most likely outcomes, note what happens and decide what you can learn from the experiment”. To build self-control you could learn to challenge thinking biases that contribute towards a lack of self-control. For example, you could challenge the short-term bias of the thought “What I gain in the short-term is more important than what I lose in the long-term”. CBT could also help you  environments more conducive to virtue. For example “In order to go out for a run every day I will put my running clothes next to my bed so I put them on when I get up.” Donald Robertson’s Stoic self-monitoring record sheet is an excellent example of  how  drawing  on CBT has already helped modern Stoicism teach us how to build the virtue of wisdom –  see also  my Stoic worry tree.

A second candidate is Mindfulness.  Mindfulness has become part of the Zeitgeist, there is proven benefits that it can help [iv], and there is a good argument for incorporating mindfulness  into Stoic Practice.[v]  Learning mindfulness – the capacity to take a step back and respond rather than react –  could certainly be a  useful part of virtue training. However, there is reason to doubt whether learning mindfulness is there is to learning to be virtuous.

One problem is that mindfulness without the rest of virtue mindfulness could actually do harm. As Mathieu Ricard  – a veteran of thousands of hours of mindfulness and a well-known exponent of mindfulness – points out – “a sniper waiting for his victim: … To succeed in his ominous goal, he has to ward off distraction and laxity, the two major obstacles to attention. The practice of mindfulness thus needs to be guided by right view and insight  …and motivated by the right intention”. In other words, mindfulness needs to be guided by virtue and wisdom –otherwise it can be used in the service of morally indifferent of even evil ends – such as becoming a more skilled sniper.

So far we have found two evidence-based psychologies that can help us provide tools to develop virtue – CBT and mindfulness. We can and should incorporate these ideas into our approach – but it would be even better if we could find an evidence-based approach already uses these ideas and is more focussed on building virtue rather than part of virtue. We will return to this quest, after considering the second criticism of Stoicism that has given me much food for thought.

This objection will already be   familiar to many readers. Some critics say that Stoicism  comes across as a cold, unemotional philosophy, perhaps thinking of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Unfortunately, this impression isn’t restricted to those who are ignorant of Stoicism. No less a philosopher than  Martha Nussbaum  has gone on record as saying that   ”Stoicism  is an anti-compassion tradition“. Of course, Nussbaum’s view is highly contentious. Unlike Epicureanism, its ancient rival, Stoicism has always had a strong political dimension. Hierocles’s concentric circles  provides ample  illustration of  Stoicism’s benevolent concern for the whole of mankind.  Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about Stoicism not really being compassionate, but about how Stoicism presents itself. Maybe Stoicism  needs to put its most compassionate foot forwards.

However it isn’t just compassion to others that’s an issue, it’s also compassion to oneself. A couple of years ago, after I gave a workshop which included the Evening Meditation exercise, someone came up to me and said “This is all very  interesting, Tim, but I’ve got a bit of  a history about being hard on myself, and my worry is that this material will make it worse”.  It has to be agreed that the language of Marcus and Epictetus does  not always appear very self-compassionate. To take a few  examples from Marcus’s Meditations

 “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul.” (2:6)

 “Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one” (10:16)

“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life”. (9.37)

It could very reasonably be argued that Marcus knew this was the best way of giving himself a good pep talk, and that he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else would be motivated by the same language. Marcus was, as far as we know, writing his Meditations purely for himself. However unlike Marcus, we are writing for a broader audience, including those who already have a tendency to be too self-critical. So perhaps we need to be mindful of the dangers of using compassionate language which isn’t compassionate.

So far we have looked at two  apparently separate topics. First, how to help people become more virtuous. Second, how Stoicism might benefit from presenting  itself in a more compassionate and self-compassionate manner. It would be very good news indeed if there was an evidence-based therapy that addresses both of these concerns.

Compassion-Focussed Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training

It’s entirely possible that there is such a therapy, and it’s name is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)  and its related set of practices Compassionate Mind Training(CMT).[vi]  CFT  is an integrative, evidence-based,   third-wave CBT therapy developed largely in the UK by psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues.  CFT draws on ideas from CBT and mindfulness as well as neuroscience (e.g. Porges’s polyvagal theory.), developmental psychology (e.g. attachment theory) and philosophy, especially Buddhist ideas relating to compassion.

 A key idea  is that we have three emotional regulation systems. These are

  1. The threat system, associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger, which motivates us to deal with threats
  2. The drive system, associated with dynamic positive emotions such as excitement and achievement which motivates us to move towards pleasure and success and
  3. The soothing  and affiliative system which is associated with calm positive emotions such as contentment and trust, which manages distress and promotes bonding. [vii]

Each state has typical emotions, motivations and neurochemistry. The ultimate aim  of  CFT/CMT is to develop a compassionate self which is strong enough to achieve optimal emotional balance between these three emotional systems.

In order to do this, CFT/CMT  takes people through a number of stages, as follows:-

1)       Clearing up misconceptions about what is meant by compassion. A key point is that there is much more to compassion than just being kind and warm. CFT/CMT follows the Dalia Lama in defining compassion as

“a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”.

To do this, you need much more than just sentimental warmth and kindness. If you ask people for examples of compassionate people, they will give you names like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and  Gandhi. These people may be are warm and kind, but they are also courageous, strong, wise and responsible.  When CFT/CMT tries to build compassion, it also tries to build these other qualities.

It was when reading this that I had one of those “Aha” moments. Virtue in ancient philosophy means justice, courage, wisdom and self-control. Compassion in CFT/CMT is sounding  a lot like like virtue in Stoicism and ancient philosophy. If CFT/CMT provides an evidence-based route to building “compassion”, could this help us with building virtue?

2)      The second stage of CFT/CMT is psychoeducation about the brain, including the new brain and old brain, the amygdala and the three emotional regulations systems. An important message here is that we all have “tricky brains” and many of us have difficult pasts.  The behaviours that cause  you problems are not your fault.  However learning to  deal skilfully with your reactions and tricky brain is your responsibility.   Note that CFT/CMT uses truly compassionate language – combining warmth and non-judgement with the need for courage and responsibility.

3)     The next [viii]  stage of CFT/CMT involves building up and strengthening the compassionate self. These include:-

  • Soothing Compassionate Breathing. Breathing more slowly and deeply than usual for a few minutes to get into the habit of getting the soothing and affiliative system on line
  • Safe Place Guided Meditation.  Imagining a safe, welcoming place to help get the soothing and affiliative system on line.
  • Mindfulness Learning how to choose a response rather than merely react
  • Ideal Compassionate Self Guided Meditation.  Having got the soothing system on line first with soothing breathing, imagining yourself having the qualities of compassion –kindness, confidence, maturity, strength and authority, wisdom and insight– and imagining acting in a compassionate way.
  • Ideal Compassionate Other Guided MeditationImagining compassion flowing to you from another ideally compassionate being, imagining what advice they would give you – to help you  build up the feeling of what it is like to feel compassion.
  • Compassionate Letter WritingUsing expressive writing to understand your problems compassionately and planning how to deal with them more skilfully.
  • Behavioural experiments Testing out more helpful strategies that cultivate compassion and self-compassion.

Can CFT/CMT help Modern Stoicism?

We are now in a position to explore whether CFT/CMT can help.   Modern Stoicism and CFT/CFT have many similarities but there are also important differences.

  • Stoicism is routed in philosophy, so we can expect  from Stoicism more insight into the nature of wisdom as well as the  many ancient practices and readings to develop it to draw on
  • CFT/CMT is routed in modern science, so we can anticipate that it is based on a contemporary understanding of the brain   (“in accordance with nature”) and will include  many evidence-based techniques

Table 1 below gives a more complete comparison of some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and CFT/CMT



Aims to build Stoic Wisdom and Virtue Aims to  build Compassion (which it turns out means building other virtues)
Early morning meditation & Negative visualisation  to help prepare for the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Self meditation to help prepare for difficult situations and build compassion and other positive qualities
Evening meditation & “sage on your shoulder” to help review the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Other meditation to help get a sense of compassion and reflect on how to deal well with difficult situations
Marucs Aurelius’s Meditations – his own personal diary to help him develop Stoic virtue Compassionate Letter Writing – expressive writing to help people develop a compassionate stance to themselves 
Recognises the need to be vigilant so “first  movements” so they don’t turn into full-blown negative emotions  Developing Soothing Compassionate Breathing & Mindfulness, first as exercises, then in difficult situations, to calm down the threat and drive systems and bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line so the compassionate self gets a chance to respond
To some extent, a reputation for being cold and unemotional Whole focus is on being more compassionate and self-compassionate
Based on ancient philosophy Based on  science including neuroscience and psychology

Table 1: Stoicism and CFT/CMT – a comparison

5 Practical Ideas for Modern Stoicism

I believe that there is the potential for a powerful synergy between Stoicism and CFT/CMT. To conclude, here are five  practical ideas which address the two concerns raised and could help Modern Stoicism be wiser and more helpful.

1)      Use the language of compassion and self-compassion

If we start to use more compassionate language, then there is less risk Stoicism will be confused with a non-compassionate or even anti-compassionate practice.  Here are some good sayings to try out

  • “We are all fallible human beings.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “You can’t choose what’s happened to you so far – your genes, your upbringing – but you can choose how you respond to it.”
  • “Work towards being the best possible version of yourself.”

All of these are often used in CFT/CMT  and would l I believe would sit well in Stoic Training.

2)      Learn soothing breathing and mindfulness so you have a better chance to notice the “first movements” and bring the green soothing system on line.  Here are some links to recordings:-

3)      Use CFT-informed Compassionate Self meditations as rehearsals for the day ahead and for challenges you face in general. These are eyes closed exercise, starting with soothing breathing. Like an actor, you  imagine yourself with all the elements of virtue – wisdom, courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You  imagine yourself behaving in a virtuous way, even when difficulties arises.  This is obviously similar to the morning meditation and negative visualisation – the value added is in incorporating ways to bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line and to rehearse using specific virtues.

4)      Use CFT-informed  ideal compassionate-other  meditations to review how you’ve done in the day in facing life’s challenges. Again, this is an eyes closed exercising starting with soothing breathing. You   Imagine an ideal virtuous other  – someone who fully embodies the virtues – wisdom (including Stoic wisdom), courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself  interacting with this being – and that they are encouraging you, being warm to you, and also helping you become the best version of yourself. [ix]

5)      Blending CMT/CFT/CBT/Mindfulness & Modern Stoicism

The Idea is to blend Stoic ideas about wisdom and other specific virtues using compassionate language and evidence-based methods like soothing breathing, mindfulness and compassionate self meditations.  Over Stoic week 2015  I wrote a script for several of these, on  self-control, the  serenity prayer (Stoic Wisdom) and Stoic compassion . Here I will give the full script and a recording on persistence, an important quality modern psychologists call  “grit”.

Modern Stoic Meditation on the Virtue of Persistence

Epictetus would  say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control.  Lack of persistence stops us from enduring hardships that we need to tolerate, lack of self-control stops us from resisting pleasures or other things we ought to resist.

‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”
Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Persist and Resist

  • At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”
  • For example, if you are running a marathon  and thinking “I  won’t be able to finish” remind yourself

                “This is just a thought, not a fact.”

  • As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback or an  obstacle . Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison.
  • Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
  • Thomas Edison suggested Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.
  • So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.
  • Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation informed by Stoicism and Compassionate Mind Training  to help us build up the virtue of persistence.
  • So think of something you want to achieve – it could be developing Stoicism into daily rituals, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, now close your eyes and prepare for this modern Stoic meditation.
  • First to help your mind be in a calm state, let’s try a few moments slow soothing compassionate breathing.
  • Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it!
  • Next  think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.
  • Finally imagine feeling satisfied for having persisted, despite the temptation to give up, putting into practice the virtue of persistence.

To conclude, in this article I have taken Marcus Aurelius’s advice to learn from criticisms of Stoicism to heart and explored how CFT/CMT can help develop modern Stoicism into a more compassionate practice that can develop specific virtues. We can now see that Marcus’s advice is itself an example of true self-compassion, meaning not sentimental warmth but a wise, responsible, courageous commitment to improving the well-being of oneself and others.

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.


[i] See Gill, G. (2015) What is Stoic Virtue?

[ii] See LeBon, T. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology pp xi-xvi   (Hodder Teach Yourself Series, 2014) for some examples of how some very plausible ideas about personal development don’t actually work so well in practice.

[iii] See  LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 9 for more on the CBT toolbox.

[iv] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 10 for more on mindfulness.

[v] Though as Patrick  Ussher has argued, Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) has a bigger part of Stoic virtue, and is a bit different from mindfulness.

[vi] CFT was originally developed to help people who have particularly high degrees of shame and self-criticism, who often didn’t respond particularly well to standard CBT.  Of particular interest to us though is that is how CFT is now being extended to include broader populations. The training that is aimed at the general population as well as a clinical one is called Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and it is this  part of CFT that is particularly relevant to us here.  For the rest of this article I will refer to this approach as CFT/CMT, because our focus is more on helping the general population than on psychotherapy.

[vii] See

[viii] In CFT (as opposed to CMT) there would be aim important  third stage – understanding  your problems in terms of unhelpful – but understandable – strategies developed- often sub-consciously – to deal with threats your “tricky brain” didn’t have a better way to deal with. For example, someone who fears overwhelming emotions such as sadness and loneliness may have developed drinking as a means of avoiding these emotions This understanding of problems in a new way is called a compassion-focussed formulation

[ix] See for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.