'Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism' by Garry Bannister

Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism

by Garry Bannister


If I were not a Buddhist, I would most likely be a Stoic. There are huge similarities between Modern Stoic philosophy and Western Buddhist teachings.  Amidst these there are three that I would like to examine in this essay. Firstly, the mutual belief in our innate ability to produce our own personal happiness. Like Buddhists, Stoics believe that happiness is not about the acquisition of assets such as money, celebrity or social position but by developing what we, in Buddhism, might call ‘skilful means’. In Stoic philosophy this same understanding is seen as learning how to develop the pertinent qualities that are essential for a human life; the development of ‘The Virtues’ such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.  Secondly, that all sentient beings are naturally beings who want to know and acquire a better understanding and a better world. This in Buddhist terms is known as ‘basic goodness’ or our ‘Buddha nature’.  Stoics would more probably refer to this phenomenon as a natural propensity to help others; an innate altruism which is common to all human and animal life. Like modern Western Buddhist practice, Stoics are encouraged to get involved in family life, in social and political activities[1] and to understand that we are, all of us, members of the one human family; we are brothers and sisters wherever we may be.  This is extremely close to the Buddhist teaching of ‘oneness’ and ‘non-separation’ or in modern philosophical terminology, the teaching of ‘non-duality’.  Finally, like Buddhists, Stoics, in their own particular way, affirm the importance of mind and hold that the universe itself is permeated by a providential principle of rationality and reason which in turn give shape and form to an intelligible universe, the understanding of which can generate a system of beliefs that informs our attitudes and desires in the most positively beneficial and constructive ways.

Before I start I want to explain clearly that the editor has asked me to write a account of my own personal Buddhist journey of 30 years in relation to what I have read and understood about Modern Stoicism.  I must also admit that I have only a nodding acquaintance with some of the principle themes of Modern Stoicism; only what I have gleaned from a very limited number of source-texts, academic publications and recently organised seminars. Therefore what I write is not in any way, shape or form a case of orthodox Western Buddhist teachings being compared to Stoicism but rather a few meagre offerings from one very idiosyncratic Buddhist practitioner.

It was a number of the fascinating articles that I read in the first publication of this journal that first attracted my attention to many aspects of Stoic Philosophy and which immediately inspired me to read once again the magnificently written Discourses of Epictetus [2] and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. [3]  However, my main focus in this short essay will be on the modern movement itself which is being impressively lead by Christopher Gill of Exeter University and by Patrick Ussher in a myriad of seminars and well-organized gatherings in Britain and now also in the US.

I preface my meanderings by saying that often where Stoicism draws a line in the sand, Buddhist practice and teachings do not.  There is a transcendence in Buddhist teachings that is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘crazy wisdom’ or Koans[4]. Both Modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism are, however, obviously firmly rooted in the natural world; in our private and public interactions, our relationship to our environment and neither speak of some other path or way forward rather than by advocating unequivocally the application of wisdom[5] to all our interactions with this world and in our personal relationships with one another; be those relationships private, professional, social, political or any other.

When I say Stoicism ‘draws a line’, I am not implying or trying to insinuate from my perspective that Stoicism is, in anyway, somehow less than Buddhism but rather that it focuses itself on a different set of outcomes.  The example, I would give here is the difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Jeep.  These both can travel equally well along the highway. However, off-road perhaps a Jeep might well be a better choice of vehicle. Then again, if I were planning a long journey across Europe, a Mercedes Benz, I imagine, would be a more preferable choice. But first all, let us look at what Buddhism and Stoicism have in common.

As soon as the Buddha, Siddhartha, sits under the Bodhi tree in order to attain enlightenment, it is said that the devil, Mara, who in reality represents the unruly inclinations of the human mind, brings before him his daughters.  At first, they try to seduce him and then, when this fails, attempt to induce fear and terror in the Buddha.  But Siddhartha remains completely unperturbed and free of his passions – both the lustful passions of desire and also any experience of revulsion, or the passions of aversion.  Now if we look at this tale in the light of what Epictetus tells us, we quickly discover that when the prokoptôn, or the person wishing to follow the Stoic way, embarks upon developing “The Virtues”, that person will, we are told, consequently bring about his or her own eudaimonia or happiness.  Like most Ancient Greek words, the word, eudaimonia, has a more differentiated meaning than its English equivalent.  Eudaimonia in its original Greek meaning is happiness as in a form of a ‘flourishing of life’. It is a happiness that has within its constituent parts ‘ataraxia’ – imperturbability, ‘apatheia’ – freedom from passion or aversion and ‘eupatheiai’ – a sense of good feelings.  So these aspects of the desired Stoic ‘eudaimonia’ or enlightened state, are also key in the relationship of Siddartha to the daughters of Mara where he shows both imperturbability ‘ataraxia’ and ‘apatheia’ leading subsequently to  ‘eupatheiai’  or in Buddhist terms Nirvana.  It is quite clear that so far there is complete concurrence here with Buddhist thinking.  Where perhaps, Buddhist thinking diverges from the Stoic world-view, is when Stoics speak of our inability to change certain things because they are “outside our power” to do so. Stoicism would certainly hold to the position of there being many things that cannot be changed or influenced such as the fact that we are all going to die, that we, as conscious beings, will cease to exist and this is outside of our control and so must be accepted as such, if we are to proceed wisely focussing our energies and attention on those things in our lives that can be changed.  For Stoics, this philosophy is about life now, at this very moment, and living each moment in the most wise and positive way. However, in my own personal Buddhist understanding there is no such thing as death.  Death, illness, the world itself are all part of mind – an illusion. So what then is real?  Only experience is real.  The experience of pain, joy, the physical world, the world of forms is very real but its actual essence is empty and devoid of any real substance.  This, I believe, is a massively significant difference between the two philosophies and has far-reaching consequences as Buddhism interprets the observable material world as a manifestation of mind rather than “a-thing-in-itself”. This Buddhist belief brings with it the understanding that there is nothing outside of awareness and consciousness. So in philosophical terms, if Buddhism might be placed closer to the solipsism of George Berkley, Stoics would most probably be nearer to the worldview of John Locke. [6]

There have been a number of heated discussions in the past couple of years between Modern Stoics, in regard to interpersonal detachment.  Professor Gill addresses this issue in one of his seminars on Stoicism where he raises the concerns of scholars such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum who consider that Stoic detachment might possibly hinder a fuller and more loving commitment to others due to a distancing of oneself or a remaining, to some extent, aloof from others.  In Stoic terms, Professor Gill directs our attention to two strands of development. Firstly, the development of wisdom and secondly our involvement in sustained interaction with those in our personal spheres and with those in public or global communities.  He points to the Stoic understanding that we are all brothers and sisters with one shared humanity and that Stoics have always maintained that there is an innate desire in humans and animals to look after and care for others. Wisdom dictates that there are no frozen truths in how to behave and he brings the example of a parent staying by the bed of its very sick child, rather than doing something “useful” like going to work.

However here again there is a notable difference in my Buddhist approach.  ‘Non-attachment’ in Buddhist terms is the realization that there is in fact no ‘other’ ‘oneness’ is ‘non-separation’ and so ‘non-attachment’ is our ability to let go entirely of any concept of duality, i.e. the mistaken idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a ‘me’ and a ‘what is not me’. We have seen this realization ermerge recently, albeit in a rather cloaked fashion, with popular protest slogans such as: “Je suis Charlie… Je suis Muslim… Je suis Juif… etc”. This solidarity phenomenon is now appearing spontaneously across the globe after major tragedies or any major acts of unethical aggression.  People instinctively feel today that they are one brotherhood and as Shakespeare’s Shylock put it so well “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”  This human unity of our nature and being is very clearly emphasized and understood by the Stoics, but unlike Buddhism, there is a recognized separation inherent in Stoic teaching – a ‘me’ and a ‘not-me’.  In Stoicism the world is populated by individuals working together to achieve a mutual happiness or flourishing, whereas in Buddhism – there is no self, merely habituations and there are no individuals – simply a deluded conscious awareness misguided by a misleading world of perceptions[7].  So when a Stoic speaks about ‘interpersonal detachment’ – it makes little sense to a Buddhist like me as there is nothing to be detached from, except perhaps, our deluded perceptions.  The central teaching in regard to ‘non-attachment’ in Buddhism is compassion and pure compassion is ultimate wisdom.  Chögyam Trungpa[8] once defined compassion as “fearless generosity” and this is what the Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ means in it fullest sense.

Now if we return to Stoic ‘interpersonal detachment’ we can perhaps now see that it is, in fact, a subset of ‘non-attachment’. And hence the principal of Buddhist non-attachment would, for me, provide a more comprehensive answer to those concerns raised by Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum.  If we ask ourselves what would the compassionate person do (i.e. the wise person) then there is no doubt that he or she would organise their actions in such a way as to lessen the distress and the pain of “others” no matter what “personal” cost (or courage) that might entail.

Finally, from what I have read on Stoicism, our belief-systems also enjoy other similarities. If Buddhism is, as the Dalai Lama suggests “a science of mind” then Stoicism is every inch a science of mind. Modern Stoicism is an uncompromising investigation into the workings and the relationships of mind with the world.  The belief in a Providential and rational world implies that the universe is intelligible and, according to the ancient Stoics at least, benign.  Both philosophies also construct their beliefs, not from sacred texts, but from negotiable beliefs that have been wrought and derived out of human experience.  Texts are, of course, consulted in both Buddhist and Stoic debates but are not the dogmatic glue of either philosophy.  In the case of Buddhism, the differing traditions have a wide variety of texts according to their specific lineages and as for the Stoics, they gather together their various strands of thought from a wide variety of sources that have been developed through wise and intelligent observations in all areas of human activity from the writings of Emperors to the deliberations of modern psychologists. But for both it is within the mind itself that all heaven and hell are created and reside. One very telling text from Marcus Aurelius explains clearly this central understanding in Stoic reasoning which I’m sure Modern Stoicism would also endorse. In this particular passage, Marcus Aurelius is observing how people are generally inclined to go off somewhere, to a different place far away; to a retreat or off to the coast in order to relax and find some peace. But in the text Aurelius wisely, to my mind, observes:

“…this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.  There is nowhere that person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.” [9]

If this excellent translation does not implicitly imply that we should seek solutions within oneself then Marcus Aurelius again emphasizes his point by recommending that we all should constantly give ourselves time-out for this inner personal retreat in order to renew and replenish our lives.[10]

And Aurelius is right, we are frequently inclined to think that if only we could manage to go somewhere else, or to acquire some particular item then we would achieve true contentment but my Buddhist practice has shown me over the years the exact opposite, i.e. that Nirvana is not achieved by the acquisition of anything material but rather by the removal of that which obscures and creates confusion.

So, if I’m correct, that the bedrock of Modern Stoicism is a deeply compassionate philosophy rooted in rationality, logic and analytical observation of the natural world around us, it is therefore, in its essence, fundamentally materialistic and follows to some greater or lesser extent a Feynmanian[11] attitude, whereas my understanding of Buddhism would be, hopefully, an eventual transcendence of the very beliefs and science that inform the precepts of my perceived worldview.  There is a wonderful and greatly celebrated Buddhist tale which, for me, quintessentially identifies this key and very basic distinction between the two philosophies.  And it goes like this:

Hui-Neng was totally illiterate and looked after himself and his elderly mother by collecting and selling firewood.  One day Hui-Neng was going about his business when he heard some verses being recited from the Diamond Sutra[12].  He was so impressed by this that he immediately went to the monastery of the 5th Patriarch, Hung-Jen.  Hung-Jen took Hui-Neng into his monastery to do menial tasks. Eventually however, it was time to choose a new Patriarch. Shen-Hsui was the most intellectually brilliant of all the monks in the Monastery and so he composed a poem to prove that he was worthy of the position:

“The Body is the Bodhi tree, The mind – a mirror bright, Take care to keep it dust-free, So it may reflect the light”

Shen-Hsui’s verse, like Marcus Aurelius in his meditations, urges us to maintain clarity in our thinking and constant vigilance in regard to our behaviour, for only then shall we cultivate and maintain a mind that is “in good order”.  Nonetheless Hui-Neng was not greatly impressed by this and so he decided to compose his own poem:

‘In truth there is no Bodhi tree, No mirror on a stand, There’s nothing there but emptiness, No place for dust to land.’

After reciting this poem, Hui-Neng was installed as the 6th Patriarch but he had to run for his life from the other monks and go into hiding. Buddhist practice is not about dealing with life, it is life. It’s aim is to reflect the true nature of the mind its reality which is, in Buddhist terms, absolute emptiness.

Therefore, may I end this short essay by commending all my Stoic friends whose philosophy in worldly terms offers, for all those who practise it correctly, clarity of mind, an ordered and purposeful life, but most importantly of all a deep inner eudaimonia or happiness that cannot and will not be frustrated by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.  I am firmly convinced that it is those who follow such a resourceful philosophy who will, in the end, achieve their personal dreams and aspirations by accessing their own maximum inner potential… fearlessly, wisely and of course, with good temperance. It is undoubtedly people with such a mindset as the Stoics, who will become the best captains of industry, the most honest politicians, the wisest and the wealthiest in this material world while alas, I and my Buddhist friends will be still up a mountain somewhere in Tibet, watching our village being ransacked by hostile invaders.  But, I suppose, that is why I am a Buddhist and not a Stoic.

Garry Bannister was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1953. His first encounter with Buddhism was at the age of 16 when a friend purchased a book of Buddhist Koans.  It was not until his mid thirties, however, that he became a practising Buddhist.  At first, it was Zen that attracted his interest because of its simplicity and minimalism.  Bannister has a wide experience in various western Buddhist teachings and presently practises Nichiren Buddhism. He attended Trinity College Dublin where he studied Irish and Russian. On receiving a scholarship, he went to Moscow State University where he graduated with an MA in Russian language and literature and also, later, successfully defended a PhD in comparative linguistics.  Bannister’s main interest today is the Irish language and its literature. He has many publications in this area and is presently working at St Columba’s College, Dublin.

Notes [1] The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1, Soka Gakkai: “No worldly affairs of life or work are ever contrary to the true reality….the Lotus Sutra  explains that in the end secular matters are the entirety of Buddhism.” (page 1126). [2] Our knowledge of the philosophy of Epictetus and his method as a teacher comes to us mainly via two works composed by his student Arrian, The Discourses and the Handbook. [3] One of my main references being Prof. Gill’s Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013). [4] A ‘koan’ is a story that points to the ultimate nature of reality. Paradox is essential as it transcends conceptual or logical thought. [5] I would argue that in both Stoicism and Buddhism wisdom is key because if we are wise then we will undoubtedly be courageous, just and capable of maintaining self-control. [6] This is a very loose comparison just to illustrate the huge chasm that lies between the metaphysical and the materialistic strands in philosophy. [7] In Mahayana schools reality is often described in terms of two truthsrelative and absolute. Relative truth can be either perverted relative truth or pure relative truth.  The example is often given of a person observing a rope and perhaps believing the rope to be a snake (i.e. perverted relative truth)or another person who sees the rope as a rope (i.e. pure relative truth… perhaps the stoic view?). Whereas absolute truth is the understanding or realization that there is no rope there at all. [8] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Tibetan monk who came to Britain in 1960’s an is the founder of Shambhala Buddhism in the West; one of the largest Western Schools of Modern Buddhism. [9] Prof. Christopher Gill – Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013); Book 4, section 3. [10] ibid. “So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself” [11] ‘Feynmanian’ –  a word I made up myself, based on the modus operandi of the world famous scientist, Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) whose approach to investigating all phenomena of the natural world was consistently rooted in factual observation. James Gleicksummed Feynman’s approach up as “What scientists create must match reality.” from ‘Genius, The life of Science of Richard Feynman’ (1992) page. 324. [12] The Diamond Sutra is a very ancient text containing a discourse between the Buddha and one of his senior monks, Subhuti

'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:- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/resources/audio.htm

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? http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/11/21/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/

[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 http://media.psychology.tools/worksheets/english_us/emotional_regulation_systems_en-us.pdf

[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 http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/06/14/how-to-become-more-virtuous-and-less-like-basil-fawlty-tim-lebon/ for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.

'Stoicism and the Environment' by Chris Gill

Stoicism and the Environment

by Christopher Gill
(Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought, University of Exeter)

Sourced here.
Sourced here.


Can Stoic ethical ideas help us respond more effectively to the current environmental crisis, especially global warming, which seems to be largely a product of human action? This suggestion might seem implausible at first sight. The ancient Stoics had no experience of a crisis of this kind; so we cannot refer to their own discussions in the way we can on other topics. However, there are several Stoic ideas we can draw on to inform and deepen our own response to this crisis. My focus is on the ethical framework we should use for this purpose, rather than on the specific practical measures we can take, and on our response as individuals, rather than on government action. But I assume that the ethical framework we apply can help us to determine the specific measures we should take and that our response as individuals underlies what we urge governments to do on our behalf.

Of special value for this purpose is the Stoic ideal of the brotherhood of humankind, and the Stoic beliefs that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole and that human ethical life should consist in part in bringing our life into harmony with nature. However, to show how these ideas can be useful for this purpose, we need to put them in their context in Stoic ethics. Also, there are some more general features of Stoic ethics that are potentially valuable in this connection.

Thinking about environmentalism in terms of virtue and happiness

The Stoic ethical framework, as in most other ancient philosophical theories, and some modern ones, is couched in terms of virtue and happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia); it also gives a central place to development, conceived as a life-long process. The contemporary moral dilemmas generated by the environmental crisis are often formulated in terms of the question where our duty lies or whom (or what) we should benefit above all. Does our duty lie above all in doing what is best for our present way of life (our comfort and convenience and that of our families and businesses, as these currently function)? Or should our overriding duty be to the environment, or the planet, or future generations – actually not much in the future now that the signs of global warming are already obvious? Alternatively, should we benefit ourselves, our families and our businesses by continuing to act in our habitual way or should we modify our lifestyles in ways that will benefit humanity more generally, as well as other animals (now and in the future), by helping to reduce damage to the environment we all share?

However, an alternative (and perhaps compatible) way of framing the dilemma is in terms of virtue and happiness. Arguably, we should see the exercise of the virtues (analysed by the Stoics as subdivisions of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice) as including actions designed to minimise damage to the environment. This involves some extension to the normal way we think about the virtues, since we tend to think about them in terms of our relationship to other human beings. However, the environment crisis has a direct effect on other human beings and on ourselves: global warming carries the threat of massive disruption to existing modes of human life and resources and, in the longer term, to the maintenance of human life at all on earth. So this is a natural extension to the way we should think about what virtuous action involves.

What is the advantage of reflecting on this question in terms of virtue and happiness? One powerful reason for doing is that it can help to promote the motivation to act in an environmentally responsible way and to do so consistently. According to a number of ancient and modern ethical approaches, our happiness or flourishing, as moral agents or human beings, depends on developing and exercising the virtues. Stoicism holds this view in the strongest possible form, maintaining that happiness, or the best human life, consists in developing and exercising the virtues. Things other than virtue, such as health, property and a stable family life, while naturally pursued by human beings, are not integral to our happiness in the same way. So, if we accept that virtuous action includes acting in an environmentally responsible way, we will come to see such action as contributing to our happiness and the best human life. We will not see our situation as one in which we are forced to choose between acting in a way that promotes our own happiness and acting in a way that minimises harm to the environment or which benefits future generations of human beings. This is one advantage of adopting a virtue-ethics approach to this question, and especially of adopting in this context the Stoic view of the relationship between virtue and happiness.

The relevance of the Stoic theory of development to this topic

Stoic thinking on virtue and happiness is closely linked with a well worked-out theory of development (understood as ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarisation’, oikeiōsis). The Stoics set the bar for virtue, and thus happiness, very high, while still maintaining that all human beings are fundamentally capable of carrying out the developmental process that leads to virtue and happiness. Hence, in Stoic theory, ethical development is seen not just as a phase of human life (a normal part of growing up) but as a potentially life-long process. Put differently, ethical life (or just life, properly lived) is an on-going project of aspiration towards virtue and happiness.

How is the Stoic view of ethical development relevant to the question how we should respond to the environmental crisis? There are several relevant features. One is that, if we accept Stoic ideas about human psychology (though these have often been challenged in ancient and modern times), ethical development carries with it a progressive transformation of emotions and desires. By contrast with Platonic and Aristotelian thinking (and with comparable strands in modern thought), human psychology is seen as functioning in a unified or holistic way, so that changes in belief affect emotions and desires directly without the need for a distinct process of habituation of non-rational parts. On this view, changing our beliefs about what constitutes virtue and happiness brings with it a unified motivational response that shapes our actions directly. Hence, coming to believe that virtuous action (and the happy life) involves acting in an environmentally responsible way carries with it motivational change, which feeds directly into the actions we take.

A second relevant feature of Stoic thinking about development is this. Stoic theory presents the movement towards achieving virtue and happiness as highly demanding (one we are unlikely ever to complete), while stressing that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing in this way. Also, according to Stoicism, determining the specific actions in which virtue is properly expressed is not straightforward and is not subject to codified, exception-free rules or laws. Rather, a progressive movement towards gaining a better understanding of virtue forms an integral part of the process of ethical development. These features of Stoic thinking are also potentially relevant to our response to the environmental crisis. Although it is sometimes suggested that this crisis can be somehow managed in a relatively effortless way by technological progress, this seems to me largely wishful thinking. It seems much more likely that an effective response to this crisis will involve all of us in substantial changes in lifestyle, affecting how we travel (and how much), how we heat our houses (and how much), what we eat (and how much), and a great deal more. The Stoic view of ethical development as, on the one hand, demanding in its aspirations, and, on the other, requiring us to work out for ourselves the specific actions that virtue involves, thus offers a good general framework for an effective response to the environmental crisis.

The brotherhood of humankind

The Stoic theory of development also provides the framework for the two ideas which are potentially most useful for this question: the idea of the brotherhood of humankind and the belief that nature as a whole provides a moral standard. One of the two principal strands in ethical development is a social one, which takes its start from what Stoics see as a primary animal instinct (parallel to the instinct for self-preservation), namely the desire to benefit others of our kind. The clearest illustration of this instinct is parental love for offspring, which is shared by human and non-human animals. During human development, this is transformed into a more rational and structured pattern of motivation, with two main outcomes. One is reasoned engagement in family and community life, and the other is coming to recognise that all human beings are our brothers or sisters, or our fellow-citizens, in so far as they share this in-built capacity for rational ethical development. These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive (though we need to work out carefully the proper relationship between them). Rather, our commitment to our family and community is conceived as one aspect of the fellowship we have with humanity as a whole.

This idea is potentially valuable for us now as we reflect on the ethical challenges posed by global warming and related environmental problems. On the one hand, it makes good sense for us to work out strategies which can help to maintain the viability of our own families, communities and businesses (although the way these operate may need quite substantial modification, as already noted). On the other hand, our planning needs to take account of the global nature of the problem, and of the fact that decisions taken in any one context have serious implications for others. Also, and crucially, we need to recognise that human beings as such have a legitimate claim on our ethical concern, and not simply those human beings that fall within the current boundaries of our family, community or nation. Otherwise, appeals to act in an environmentally responsible way for the sake of humanity as a whole or for future generations will have little hold on us. Of course, adopting this view is highly demanding, and it still requires us to work out with care the specific actions with follow from it. But, as already stressed, these points are in any case fully recognised by the Stoic ethical framework; and taking effective action in this respect depends on our making ethical progress in general, including gaining a better understanding of what virtue and happiness involve.

Taking nature as a whole as an ethical norm

The second Stoic idea that has special value in this connection is that nature as a whole constitutes an ethical norm for human beings. ‘Naturalism’, in some sense, is a prevalent feature of ancient ethical thought. Aristotle, for instance, in a famous passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1.7), argues that, to understand what constitutes happiness (eudaimonia), it is useful to reflect on what is distinctive of human beings, so that we can define more exactly what counts as human happiness. However, the Stoics go further in this direction than Aristotle, claiming that, in reflecting on virtue and happiness, we should see ourselves not just as part of the human species but of the natural universe as a whole. They also maintain that the natural universe embodies characteristics which we should take as exemplary for our own lives and that we should work towards bringing ourselves into line with these features.

Determining just what the Stoics mean by these claims is not easy and has been much debated by scholars. I offer a possible interpretation, which is designed to show how these ideas can contribute to our efforts to respond properly to the environmental crisis. I think that the Stoics see nature as a whole as exhibiting two main characteristics which are also expressed in human life, at its best. One is order, rationality and structure, and the other is providential care. The Stoics think that nature as a whole embodies order, rationality and structure. They see this as manifested most clearly in the regular patterns of nature (the movements of the planets, cycle of seasons and so on), and in the seamless web of causes and effects that operates throughout the universe. Stoics also see order, rationality and structure as properties of human life at its best. These properties are expressed, for instance, in the virtues (seen by the Stoics as a coherent, interconnected set of qualities) and in the ordered structure of human life and happiness when these are consistently based on the virtues. The Stoics also believe that nature as a whole embodies providential care; this is manifested, for instance, in the fact that certain component parts of nature (human and non-human animals) are instinctively inclined to preserve their own lives and to care for their offspring. The distinctively other-benefiting motives that are characteristic of fully developed human beings (including ethical concern for human beings as such) are seen as an extension of the providential care that is in-built in nature as a whole. Ethical development thus enables human being to embody features that are characteristic of nature as a whole, and also to form a better understanding of those features and to use them as models for shaping their own lives and actions.

These are quite complex ideas and they may seem alien or unconvincing to us today. People may feel that the Stoic view of nature is not compatible with the modern scientific world-view – though that is a large question that would need separate consideration. However, it is worthwhile reflecting on these Stoic ideas to see how much of them we can accept and how far they help us to address the environmental crisis. In the first instance, it is useful to be reminded that human beings form an integral part of nature, even though we often act in the modern world as if we were somehow separate from nature or as if we relate to nature only as its master. It is also helpful to be confronted with the idea that nature as a whole should figure as part of our moral horizon and that morality is not just a matter of our relationship to other human beings. But the potential value of these Stoic ideas may go further, even if we have reservations about the credibility of the Stoic world-view. For instance, we may see the force of the idea that providential care for others is in-built in nature, as manifested, for instance, in the animal (and human) instinct to care for one’s offspring. And we may also accept the idea that ethical development, in its social strand, results in the expression of providential care for others (those who share our lives and also human beings more generally), and that this is an extension of a more general feature of nature. Indeed, we may also take this idea rather further than the Stoics themselves did, though in a direction consistent with their thinking. We may see the exercise of providential care by human beings as something that should be appropriately extended to nature as a whole, taking into account our special natural capacities for rationality, social organisation and technological skill. Regarding the environmental crisis, we have a special reason for doing so since our exercise of providential care is a matter of trying to repair the damage that we have done to the natural environment, above all in generating global warming by human action.

Similarly, we may feel able to accept the Stoic view that virtue and the happiness that depends on virtue constitute a kind of inner rational structure and order. We may also accept that this inner structure is characteristic of human nature at its best and that in this sense it is natural for us to develop this structure. We may also see the force of the idea that for human beings to develop in this way reflects a kind of structure and order in-built in nature as a whole (even if we have reservations about the credibility of this Stoic view in other respects). If, again, we extend this idea further than the Stoics did, though consistently with their approach, we may see this internal moral structure as one that is incomplete and deficient if it leaves out of account the fact that human life is situated within the natural environment as a whole. Virtues, in other words, need to be expressed in actions that affect nature as a whole and not simply those that affect human lives. In this sense, we need to work towards a view of virtue and happiness that is consistent with our understanding of nature as a whole and of our human life as an integral part of nature as a whole.

None of these ideas are easy or straightforward; but then neither is the situation in which we currently find ourselves, as we struggle to get to grips with the enormity of the threat to humanity and nature posed by global warming. My proposal is that there are several Stoic ideas on which we can draw to supplement and deepen our ethical response to this crisis, by adopting or extending Stoic ideas for this purpose.

Background Reading

I am not aware of any previous attempt to apply Stoic ideas to the environmental crisis. I list reading which relates to the various Stoic ideas used here for this purpose. On Stoic ideas about nature as a whole (as ordered and providential), about development, virtue and happiness, emotions and political ideals (including the brotherhood of humankind), see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 54, 57, 59 D, 61, 63, 65 and 67 (also Cicero, On Duties 1.11-14 and 53 on development and the brotherhood of humankind). On development and ethical ideals, see C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 129-66; also on these ideas, and nature as a norm, as understood by Marcus Aurelius, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford 2013), pp. xxxiv-xlix, lxiii-lxvii. For an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (Chesham, 2006), esp. chs. 4-5 on Stoic physics and ethics.

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

'On Epictetus and Post-Traumatic Stress' by Leonidas Konstantakos

On Epictetus and Post-Traumatic Stress

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Leonidas Konstantakos

‘I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.’         – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Writing this piece is one of the most personal things I’ve ever been asked to do, and perhaps one of the most difficult as well. When discussing Stoicism and its therapeutic effects on persons with post-traumatic stress, what could I add to the new Stoa that Donald Robertson hasn’t already covered with his Stoic cognitive behavioural therapy? Or to the work of Thomas Jarrett, who applies Stoic principles in his mental-health course, Warrior Resilience and Thriving, which helps instil ‘post-traumatic growth’ in our warriors so that they may move forward with their lives? Let alone to the heroic account of the Stoic fighter pilot James Stockdale, who underwent a brutal, Epictetan experience for years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. I might, however, be able to participate in the Stoic dialectic by adding another first-hand account of one more former soldier who, lost and reaching out from the abyss, found a hand grabbing mine in that spiralling chasm of anger, despair, and grief. One more person who, in reading Epictetus, took the hand of a crippled and scarred former slave- a hand that slowly began pulling me out of the darkness. If this is the story I was asked to tell, then lead me, Zeus, and begin the way you see fit.

I couldn’t sleep well for years after the war. I took night jobs and ruined relationships. I was stone-faced and ‘unfeeling as a statue’ when I did, and yet would sometimes cry uncontrollably at scenes of injuries from explosions and gunshot wounds in documentaries. Not all gunshot wounds though; just the ones from the AK-47. Similarly affected, some of the soldiers I had served with had believed they found some vestige of respite in drugs and alcohol. I had a close comrade who, one night a few months after being kicked out of the Army for drug abuse, took too much of both. To say it was suicide would suggest some thought-out intention, an act of will- an answer to Albert Camus’s only serious philosophical problem. Rather, it was one last random desperate act in a short post-war life full of random desperate acts.

Is there balm in Gilead? Is there philosophical life after post-traumatic stress from the war? Can the Stoics convince us that virtue is the only good? That vice is the only evil? That all else is indifferent? Even if that ‘all else’ means being burned, being maimed, seeing others mangled and torn? Their ears burned off and their eyes blinded by fire and explosives, staring vacantly, asking us if they ‘can go to sleep now’? Even if that ‘all else’ means children too charred to scream? Or the Iraqi woman, quietly hovering over her limp, mangled child, somehow impossibly still standing on her own shrapnel-shredded legs? Or that recurring memory of the road-kill we run past that we realize is in fact the top half of someone’s head, blown a block away by the winds of war? Soldiers are tough and bold, and we make light of it all at the next meal, getting it out, seemingly unaware that there’s still someone else’s blood on our uniforms, our hands, underneath our fingernails. We forget for the moment.

If the intellect is convinced and one accepts the doctrine of adiaphora (indifference of externals), and the mind is shown by reason that it is in the nature of animals like the ones we are to die, to be killed, and to burn like the flesh of any other mammal, that any piece of earthenware eventually breaks and returns to dust, then what do we make of those moments in the night years later, when we wake up fighting for breath and life and can’t remember why? Or alone, staring at walls, when we remember how beautiful our comrades were in life, in all their rough edges and profanity and stubbly dirty beards. The soul jerks and wrenches. When the thousandth memory surfaces, the sand in our mouths, the steaming sweat flowing from underneath the helmet and armour in those years in the relentless desert heat, those shrieking women’s voices in an unintelligible idiom in their grief or confusion, do we still hold the doctrine of the ancients to be true, or no? And if so, is it only possible to be understood by the rare phoenix that is the Stoic sage- that person of the rank of Odysseus, Socrates, and Diogenes among us? Here Epictetus shakes us awake, and pulls us further from the darkness of our thoughts:

‘Things seen by the mind, whereby the intellect of man is struck at the very first sight of anything which penetrates to the mind, are not subject to his will, nor to his control, but by virtue of a certain force of their own thrust themselves upon the attention of men; but the assents, whereby these same things seen by the mind are recognized, are subject to a man’s will, and fall under his control. Therefore, when some terrifying sound comes…or something else of the same sort happens, the mind of even the wise man cannot help but be disturbed, and shrink, and grow pale for a moment, not from any anticipation of some evil, but because of certain swift and unconsidered motions which forestall the action of the intellect and the reason.’ – Gellius, 17.19 [Oldfather’s translation, slightly modified].

As a slave, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, and his many references to chains, sword, rack, and scourging in his few discourses is a window to what his former life may have been like and what he had witnessed done to others. I doubt very much that he would not have been affected, at some level and early in life, with some semblance of what we moderns call post-traumatic stress. What he guides us with in these matters is this: for those of us grappling with these symptoms – hypervigilance, the first stirrings of grief, of anger – we might accept that we have them, perhaps ‘cannot help but be disturbed’ by them at first, and yet come to terms and realize that these impressions are not in themselves terrible. Nor must we necessarily accept that they represent something terrible. If, as the Stoics say, ‘the business of life is being a soldier’ and ‘life itself is warfare,’ then we can accept that we may now, and perhaps always, have these recurring thoughts and feelings of our formidable ‘sojourns in a foreign land’ that “thrust themselves” upon our attention. The first Stoic, Zeno, with an admirably resilient dismissive attitude, calls these ‘lingering scars.’ Seneca even suggests they can be lessened over time. But what are they, for a Stoic like Epictetus? Impressions. Impressions and nothing else. Not the impressions of something morally good, or morally bad, but merely impressions of past trauma. What did we expect to happen in life and war?

Life is chemistry: if we want to see what something is made of, we test it – we burn it, we stretch it, we crush it. For these brilliant philosophers, so it is with these impressions. And with enough time and practice, the soldier’s ‘winter training’ of doctrines attested by the warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the slave-philosopher Epictetus, and Seneca (that household tutor of the brutal, unhinged Nero), we can yet start to see these memories and impressions as nothing more than bogeymen scurrying in the dark, with power only to scare children and fools. They need not make us irascible, bloodthirsty, unfeeling, miserable, or cowardly. We mustn’t let them. For Epictetus, there is a way out of our post-traumatic abyss, and it begins by testing our thoughts and feelings:

‘Soon, however, our wise man does not give his assent, but rejects and repudiates them, and sees in them nothing to cause him fear. This is the difference between the mind of the fool and the mind of the wise man, that the fool thinks the cruel and harsh things seen by his mind, when it is first struck by them, actually to be what they appear, and likewise afterwards, just as though they really were formidable, and he confirms them by his own approval; whereas the wise man, when his color and expression have changed for a brief instant, but keeps the even tenor and strength of the opinion which he has always had about mental impressions of this kind, as things that do not deserve to be feared at all, but terrify only with a false face and a vain fear.’ (Ibid.)

We often choose to assent to these ‘cruel and harsh’ impressions. We allow ourselves to mistakenly believe that death is an evil, that injuries and pain are evils; that comrades should not die. That something bad has happened when nature, Zeus, calls his elements back to himself – whether those elements are momentarily in soldiers or children. To believe all this is unreasonable and, to keep with the ancient pantheism, impious. It is to fall in love with fantasies and externals; to fail to understand necessity and nature- our own and the world’s.

We can, however, accept that a certain type of animal, with a certain neurochemistry and disposition, may perhaps necessarily experience something of the sort after a traumatic event. We can, and perhaps will, shake, become pale, perhaps occasionally even weep. There is no shame in this when it is beyond our control. But we, the rational animals, can also do this without experiencing a violent passion, without assenting that something bad has happened to us. We need not identify with our impressions. The ancient Stoics show us that a rational animal can accept necessity, and to some extent comprehend the web of causality – the mind of Zeus. We can grow past our once-painful experiences and become better people because, in themselves, these impressions are nothing of moral value. Whether we will or not is up to us.


Oldfather, William Abbott (1998) (Trans.) Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the    Encheiridion, and Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

'Dis-ease (Mental Health)' by Zachary G. Augustine

Dis-ease (Mental Health)

from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book Proper

by Zachary G. Augustine

Editor’s Note:  This piece follows on from Zachary’s previous post.  The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.


Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
—Marcus Aurelius[i]

There is a real danger in focusing too much on learning about techniques as opposed to implementing them. The goal of therapy aims to break the linguistic circle of reading-and-thinking, ad infinitium, and to prompt a shift toward action.

Those who experience anxiety know unpleasantness of thinking too much. An apt description of anxiety is one of ‘rumination’. Those with social anxiety may ruminate on what could go wrong in a social interaction, or endlessly repeat inconsequential events. Those with more generalized anxiety may ruminate about nearly anything. The word itself refers to the digestion method of large grazing animals (like cattle) that ferment cellulose by holding it in a special, extra stomach for a long period of time. Cattle must sleep standing up because the slurry of grass and digestive juices would otherwise spill into their other stomachs.

Not that cattle aren’t infinitely interesting, but the point is that rumination has a negative connotation, one of referring to the lower animals. That is, while humans are distinguished in our ability to pause and think through problems (as no one has ever seen a cow ponder), we are also responsible for deciding, that is, stopping thought and resuming action at an appropriate time. Ultimately, humans are distinguished by action in combination with thought, not either alone. And action without thought is worse than ignorance, for the base form of judgment is one of blindly trusting the desires and judgments of the body. This leads to consequences that you would not otherwise accept. The opposite is also true: Thought by itself moves nothing.[ii]

Treatment depends on honest and good judgment of oneself. A key factor is the recognition of your own anxiety-producing practices. You must find their root, which tends to be mental and verbal in origin.[iii] Problems can seem large when they are dealt with in an excessively verbal manner – anyone who has sat in on a bureaucratic meaning can attest to the damaging powers of bloated words. Rather, you will feel relief if you can develop your own techniques to break the verbal cycle. To get outside of your own head, so to speak. The techniques themselves vary based on the situation, but fundamental to all of them is correctly identifying that your recovery is within your own control, the acceptance that it may be difficult and a willingness to try in spite of this, and a responsibility to take your recovery into your own hands. Kabat-Zinn summarizes the importance of this disposition:

“The deciding factor…is the willingness of the patient to try to do something for himself or herself to cope with some of the pain, particularly when it has not responded fully to medical treatment alone. People whose attitude is that they just want the doctor to ‘fix it’ or to ‘make it go away’ are not good candidates. They won’t understand the need to take some responsibility themselves for improving their condition. They might also take the suggestion that the mind can play a role in the control of their pain to mean that their pain is imaginary, that it is ‘all in their head’ in the first place.[iv]”

The notion that pain is real but mental is crucial to the whole effort of recovery. This is not to deny that pain feels bad or can impact our lives. But it to deny, firmly and absolutely, that we can do nothing about it. While we cannot outright ‘cure’ our mental ailments, we can minimize them to the point of nonexistence. Even more so, we can learn from them and grow into a stronger, more loving person than had we never experienced that kind of pain. In the end, any ailment ends up being an impetus to change, an opportunity for growth. But it is only an opportunity, one you have to actively take. The ailment itself is changed through this realization, just as you are changed by the ailment, and changed again by acceptance of the ailment: in all three cases, suffering ceases the moment it acquires meaning.[v] You may find that the pain itself lessens once you stop fixating on it. (This was certainly my experience.) Instead, a positive outlook actually and physically makes your situation easier to bear. The key is to direct your energy toward other activities, almost as if you are distracting your mind, long enough to show yourself that you can think about other things besides an unpleasant situation. And once you begin to think that, it will become easier and easier to distract yourself until you no longer feel compelled to think of the pain as a hindrance.

Mental health treatment must be viewed as an ongoing process of change, not merely just a cure delivered to an otherwise static patient. As patients, we often want doctors to change our bodies in order to relieve our minds. But relief often only comes from the opposite: we must make up our minds, and then our bodies will follow. Doctor’s simply won’t say this, because it defies their job description, and the ideal we hold of them. It is a matter of shifting the locus of control from an external antidote to an internal one already contained within your mind. Realize truly what is within your control, and what is without. Here especially, be patient as you learn to accept these things. You will feel frustrated. Things you wish you could be now, ideas yet unfulfilled, shapes you can see the outlines of but never materialize, a thought you grasp for only a moment before it disappears and is replaced by the nagging pain of knowing that you’ve forgotten. This is frustration. But you can teach yourself not to accept frustration and work through it. You can cultivate the muscle of patience and understanding, through forgoing false judgments in favor of reality and all its flaws. This is because, “the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”[vi] And the pain you feel is outside of your control, and thus not something worth focusing on.[vii]


When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere.

You can’t change the fact that this obsession exists. For you, it’s real. Don’t waste energy denying that.

But you can modulate your response.

This is the problem I felt most acutely. I developed irrational fears about things that never used to bother me. I knew they were irrational but I couldn’t stop. That was the worst of all.

I became fixated on ways I might accidentally or intentionally hurt myself. I was afraid that I might hurt myself. Through that fear, I became afraid that I might want to hurt myself. This fear grew and I ended up causing myself a lot of emotional suffering. My fear of suffering directly caused my suffering, because I was stuck in certain mental feedback loops. It is illogical, ironic, and borderline insane. But through simply feeling fear, worrying about fear, and worrying about worrying about fear, I spiraled downward and watched as I let my obsessions begin to impact my daily life. (This happens to be a good litmus test for looking more objectively at the state of your own problems – to what extent do your problems impact your life on a daily and long-term basis?)

I developed an irrational fear of knives, scissors, heights, and driving. I knew it was ridiculous – I had no intention of ever hurting myself – but in spite of this knowledge I could not stop worrying that one day I might. If any of those situations presented themselves, I froze. If I was cooking in the kitchen, I was watching the knives. I would sweat constantly, my heart stuttering as I walked up a tall staircase for fear that this time I would lose control entirely, have a mental breakdown, and throw myself off.

These obsessions carried over into my personal relationships. It became difficult to drive to see my friends. I became worried about trivial matters, like small sums of money or arguments with strangers on the Internet. These were ways that I could express my desire for control, in however small a way. I was so afraid of losing control that I lost it. Now, I am at peace with the fact that much is outside of my control.

So believe me when I say even some of your own thoughts are outside of your control. That’s a horrible feeling – to lose control of yourself. But it is manageable, I promise.  Don’t get discouraged, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”[ix] Take that feeling of embarrassment, and focus on that. Laugh at how strange your mind works, how silly sometimes you are. Don’t invalidate the way that you feel or the things that grab your attention. But see the humor in it, and take them for that they are worth. How things that seemed urgent a moment ago now don’t make much sense.


If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.—Iroh[x]

Depression is the inability to imagine a future.[xi] It is the assumption that your current mental state will continue indefinitely, and that such a continuation would be bad. Why would it be bad? Because your current mental state feels unpleasant, you don’t want it to continue. It would be bad because it is bad to have your current feeling continue indefinitely. It is a vicious feedback-loop. It is illogical. But, it is nonetheless real.

Depression can occur by itself or in tandem with other conditions. Often, more fundamental problems such as anxiety, phobias, or other chronic conditions wear you down. They may weaken your overall health, and leave you more susceptible to other things: difficulty sleeping, worsening eating habits, weakened immune system, etc. It is often in situations like this that one can begin to feel discouraged. And that is the breeding ground for depression, a capstone added on top of your health problems when your back was already strained. You didn’t ask for this, but you have to face it nonetheless. If you begin to feel depressed for other reasons, you obviously have to deal with the root problem. Learning to handle your anxiety or OCD can take the edge off of growing depression before it becomes a full-blown problem.

That said, depression can have no other illnesses exacerbating it. It may seem that there is no physical reason for it; this may be true. In that case, it is important to get help. It could be as simple as not getting enough vitamin D, or it may be an issue that needs to be talked through. The only way you can know is if you get help. But in any case, reasonable or unreasonable, physical or mental, you can construct your own sense of meaning in your life. This meaning can be anything you can think of. And having some sort of focus, even if it appears simple or is just a hobby, will always make your condition easier to bear. And before you know it, you’ll feel much better.

Chronic conditions

Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That – but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick – that I can see. But ‘that he might die of it,’ no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.
—Marcus Aurelius[xii]

It’s important to stay positive, and it is always possible to do so. Those words mean little by themselves. But behind them is a deep truth relevant to all of our lives. Living is painful, and often for no good reason. But life in itself is reason enough to keep going – it is always worth it, and it is always possible to believe as much, if you choose.

Take every step you can to improve your overall well-being. Any positive change you make will also have effects on your ailment. There is no reason for your pain; it is random, or unlucky, or unforeseeable. But there is always a reason to endure pain. It acquires meaning when you choose to endure it. For pain only becomes suffering when you cease to endure it. That word is important; it is active, it is everlasting, it is optimistic. It says that you have within you a willpower that you can always stretch further than before, and always replenish quicker than last time. It may not get better, but it will get easier.

Despite your ailment, you will wake up every day with determination, energy, and hope. It may not feel like it now, but it will. To wake up every day and face a new set of challenges is wonderful. You just happen to have more challenges than some people. But you also have less than other people, and for that you should be thankful. There was no way to know where you would end up on the random spectrum of what life has dealt us. And even now, although things may seem bad, there’s no way to know where you’ll end up. Won’t it be interesting to find out.[xiii]

It may end as quickly as it began, or not at all. It could stop and come back. But the answer in every case is the same: do the best you can. Don’t let yourself get discouraged by a lack of external progress, for the only progress that matters is internal.

Often these kind of things are what you have to learn to live with. And when you finally feel defeated and are about to give up, you resign to the fact that this is something you will have to get used to. You will just have to deal with it, and make the best of it. Then, at that precise moment, it passes. Paradoxically, when you stop trying to get rid of it, it disappears. This is something that requires suffering to realize. You have to go through it to understand: it didn’t go away. It’s still there. Only, now, it doesn’t bother you. What you did instead was learn that it doesn’t need to bother you. You learned how to get around, despite the obstacles. Only by fully and honestly submitting to the reality of the situation can you come to live with it in the best way possible.


Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.
—Marcus Aurelius[xiv]

A positive attitude is integral to your recovery. What if what was holding you back this entire time, preventing your recovery, was your negativity? What if just by changing your mindset – which is always within your power – you can change your life? Then you have nothing left to fear. Often, paradoxically, it is our behaviors that sustain our illnesses. Like the addict who realizes his deteriorating condition and wants to change, but lacks the resolve to do so yet. Perhaps that addict is used to feeling this way. Perhaps he has come up with behaviors that no longer give him comfort, but are simply familiar. And so the addict continues, not because he enjoys it anymore, but because he’s frightened of change. As Aurelius says

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s the same with you – and just as vital to nature.[xv]

As difficult as it may be, you need to want to change. What you want to do is suspend the doubts of your mind for long enough to act positively. Action has great positive changes on the body; this much is well known. If you change your physical state, if you achieve a basic state of physical health and activity, your mind will follow. And if you change your mental state, it will be easier to change your physical state in the future. And then you know how it works, and that it can be done, and it becomes much, much easier.

This takes time. Be patient with yourself.  There will be times when it feels hopeless, when the pain is unbearable. When it would be easier to return to your old ways. This is good! It shows that your body is resisting the changes you are trying to implement. This means that you are close to overcoming the body’s resistance. Feel the pain (don’t deny that it’s there) but don’t give into it fully. “Unendurable pain brings its own end with it. Chronic pain is always endurable: the intelligence maintains serenity by cutting itself off from the body, the mind remains undiminished. And the parts that pain affects – let them speak for themselves, if they can.”[xvi] Maintain control of your mind despite the pain – always keep a bit of yourself pulled back a bit to watch what’s happening to yourself. Just watch.

Through this act of self-observation (metacognition) your pain will lessen as you come to understand yourself better. You will reinforce a self-imposed divide between body and mind, one that nature would rather do away with, reducing you to little more than an animal. But as anyone who can endure great pain can tell you, the body cannot rule the mind; they should never converge to the same entity.

Do not hesitate to ask for help; for your worries about appearing burdensome are a just another internal barrier you have erected to bar your own recovery. You are far more conscious of your own faults in this regard than anyone else – it is just as likely that those close to you want to help, but don’t know how or are afraid to ask. It is your responsibility to ask for help, and you will be floored by the support that you receive. The stigma surrounding mental health issues is already disappearing rapidly, and what little that remains is mostly imaginary. Your problems, however, are real, and any barrier to your recovery must be overcome. Any stigma is then useless or illusory, and can be safely ignored. Do not be afraid; everyone you could possibly encounter during your recovery wants nothing more than for you to succeed.

Do not be discouraged if progress is slow. As Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”[xvii] It is okay to be broken, for you will always heal stronger. And to break in some areas and recover is infinitely better than the alternative. I want everyone to become strong at the broken places, and I hope that this book will help you in some way. But these words are no substitute for serious medical help, if that is what you require. So please, ask for help when you need it, because there are some things that are outside of your control.

In the end, you will find yourself stronger than had you never faced any difficulties. You will look at yourself and be proud of who you became. And you would do it all over again if given the chance. Because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have learned anything. You wouldn’t be as strong as you already are now, or nearly as strong as you will become. It will all be worth it. Always.

Friends and Family

We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness.
—Seneca, On Peace of Mind

There is a constant tension between asking those close to you for help and remaining silent. You need support more than anything, but it can be impossible to communicate something you don’t fully understand or even accept yourself – so how is anyone else supposed to? And that feeling of burdening those close to you never quite goes away. But I have been on both sides of that emotional support system, and I can guarantee you that there’s nothing they would rather do than help you. So please reach out to them. It will be as relieving for them to help you as it will be for you.

If you know someone who is struggling, you must understand they are already beyond frustrated with themselves. They already feel immense lot of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness. Constantly they feel as if they are a burden. So you must take great care to not add to this weight.

Also recognize that they express this internal frustration outward, and often to those closest to them. So take any negativity they express with reservation, for surely it does not reflect upon you and your actions. Even if you treat them with nothing but kindness, you will inevitably receive responses from them that are unwarrantedly negative – from your perspective. If only they could see that things aren’t as bad as they’re making it out to be. From theirs, the world is drained of its color, and you would have to be blind to not see it. Keep that in mind.

If this happens, reflect that you have far more perspective, willpower, and patience than they do in their current state. Don’t criticize their behavior, which is a direct representation of their mental state, which they have little control over (at this moment in time). To criticize any of this – to express your frustration or empathy or pity for their sorry state – is to further degrade their already minimal self-worth. You may feel frustrated that they can’t exit their slump. But surely they feel this same frustration ten times more strongly. It’s not that they don’t see it, it’s that they feel powerless to do anything about it. It is a compulsion, a necessity. And an unfortunate byproduct of that is you will have to shoulder some unpleasant encounters, reassurance, and complicated or otherwise stressful situations. Be patient, for your patience is one thing you can do to help.

Don’t take how they treat you personally; they may feel so trapped that they likely don’t have much else they can do other than lash out at you in this way. Remember that your willpower goes ten times as far as theirs. In their state, it is almost as if they are a different person.

With your support, they will emerge stronger than they were going into the ordeal. And when they come through the other end – and they always will – they, with their newfound perspective, will be incredibly thankful for how you helped them. The previous feelings of guilt and shame will be replaced with only love. The sense of burdening one another fades, instead replaced by an image of the posts of a new foundation: what weight would crack one alone is effortlessly supported by multiple. While similar things would be crushing alone, they are that much easier to bear when we rely on each other. It will be because of you they succeeded, and they, too, will help you to succeed. That is what a meaningful relationship is, and it is perhaps the strongest thing there is.

Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.


[i]Ibid., IX.13.

[ii]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

[iii] “There is evidence within the CBT literature that a preponderance of verbal processing in the form of rumination is associated with a range of psychological symptoms, overgeneral memory, and poor problem solving (e.g. Watkins, 2008). Conversely, the ability to flexibly integrate verbal and sensor/perceptual information may be the hallmark of more adaptive processing.” Richard. Stott, Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges, Oxford Guides in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

[iv] Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 287.

[v]Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

[vi]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.32.

[vii] A theme repeated often in the excellent Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking over Your Life, 1st ed. (New York: Hyperion, 1997).

[viii]Darren Aronofsky, Pi, Drama, Thriller, (1998).

[ix]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.36.

[x]The Legend of Korra, Animation, Action, Adventure, (2012), bk. 2 Episode 10: A New Spiritual Age.

[xi]Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects, Crime, (2013), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053463/. This movie may be disturbing for those with mental health illnesses, but this phrase taken alone sticks with me as an accurate depiction of depression.

[xii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.49.

[xiii]The Legend of Korra, bk. 4 episode 2: Korra Alone.

[xiv] Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VII.64.

[xv]Ibid., VII.18.

[xvi]Ibid., VII.33.

[xvii]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1st Scribner classics ed. (New York: Scribner Classics, 1997).

'Fundamentals' by Zachary G. Augustine


from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book

by Zachary G. Augustine

Editor’s Note: The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.


The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.
—Marcus Aurelius[i]

All is a matter of perspective. Or, “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”[ii] Good or bad, you live inside your mind, so you make it so. You must make it good.

Every day you will be confronted with things outside of your control. This is not bad. The things themselves cannot harm you. Rather, you harm yourself when you judge these accidental facts as bad. And so things outside of your control are nothing to regret, or worry about, or fear. When you are faced with something like this, tell yourself: I am freed from the burden of trying to control this.[iii]

It is not enough merely to endure these things outside of your control; you must actively deny their importance. They are not relevant; they are indifferent. In a perfect world, you would be indifferent to indifferent things. But you are so used to calling them bad that your mind is often tossed around by things you can’t control. So you must, instead, reject these external things. To fail to deny them is to tacitly submit to things outside of your power. To remain neutral in the face of indifferent things is to behave in bad faith.[iv] You must, in a way, be active in your denial. Not that they happen – for every day you will face matters you cannot control – but rather, it is the meaning of indifferent things that you must reject, that they hold any sway over you and your actions. And your actions are the only thing you can control entirely.

—Surely you admit that much in life is outside of your control.

Yes, of course.

—Then why do you resist those things?

On the contrary, I neither resist nor welcome things I cannot control. I am indifferent to what I can’t control. Instead, I reject their importance. To welcome them is to excuse yourself for your own failures. This reinforces the pleasant illusion that you are not in control of your own life, replacing it instead with a comfortable falsehood that you’re ‘doing the best you can’, that external factors entirely govern your being. But you are in control, you just refuse to accept it. And to resist them is to delude yourself in a different way, that you can change the will of others, control chance, or refuse the falling rain. This you will never be able to entirely control, and you must accept it, or you will grow frustrated. Instead, you must learn an accurate and precise perception of the world. You must be honest with yourself about this appraisal. Only then, will action become easy, and you will know the answer in every case: if you can change it, do so. If you can’t, you must accept it.

—Even if I do accept that, won’t that just lead me to become complacent – to stop trying to control what I can?

You already know the answer to your question – you said it already. The first step, more important than any other, is recognizing what is within your power. You don’t need to deal with all of those other things right now. In this moment, your only focus is to internalize what we have just discussed. You don’t need to have all the answers, you only need to try to tell the difference between what you can affect and what you can’t. It is so obviously true that there will be things outside of your control, yet constantly we frustrate ourselves instead of accepting them. Watch yourself for this habit, and break yourself of it. Try to recognize this fundamental distinction first, and the motivation to affect what you can will follow, you’ll see. Now, all you need is the desire to get better, and the resolve to put in the effort when it matters.

—Don’t you think that attitude is kind of defeatist? You really believe that you can be happy by giving up control over external things? I think when the time comes, you need your health and your family to be happy. You could lose these at any moment.

You again – don’t you have anything better to do than to doubt yourself? Do you never tire of thinking of the worst outcome? To think that my conscience is such a downer. I swear, you are like a doubting little demon, sitting on my shoulder and questioning my every effort! You’re getting ahead of yourself. You’re missing the point of what we’re working on right now. We’ll deal with all of that later, and you’ll see that it’s not quite as it appears. It’s not as if I can ‘give up’ control over something that was never within my control to begin with. It’s just a matter of perspective, and that’s what you have confused here. It’s only natural, you probably have some mistaken beliefs of your own; I know I probably do.

As for health and family, they are outside of your control, but only in part. You can work on both. But part of this work is recognizing that you might lose them. This is nothing to be afraid of, it’s just a fact. And you should be prepared. In fact, you’re obligated to call it like it is and not pretend that they’ll be around forever. And this fact of impermanence shouldn’t cheapen their value in your mind; it makes your time with them all the sweeter.

I’ll deal with your doubts like I deal with anything else. First, I recognize that I can’t control when your objections appear, or even what they are. It’s natural for you to be a pessimist; I feel that same strain in myself often. In certain situations it may even help me to listen to your caution, as having an active conscience is not a bad thing.

But you can get carried away. So, second, I choose to reject your doubts. Now is not the time and you know it; now is the time to learn, and to do that we have to suspend doubt for a moment and actually try. It’s like anything in life – like a lost set of keys or a broken car – you can’t help when it happens or that it does. But it is absolutely essential to choose how to respond, in every case. It won’t help you to get angry that your car is broken. Worse, it’s counterproductive to get angry: that you couldn’t see it coming, that it’s in the past, that anger won’t fix your car, and that you’re already wasting time getting it fixed and moving on in life. The latter reason, you know, is the only thing that is truly within your control: your response to the perception of a broken car. The ability to choose your response is one of your greatest gifts – it very well may be the secret to happiness. It’s so obvious it hardly needs stating, yet just watch your thoughts. How many times do you make yourself angry through choosing a counterproductive response? You know this to be true. So then you also realize how important it is to spend time on this, even though it’s obvious.

Third and finally, I’ll press on in spite of your doubts. This is the response I choose, and it’s one of action. Changing my perceptions will take practice. But how much more peaceful to be concerned only with those things which I can actually affect.

Through drawing this division in my mind, I will separate the wheat from the chaff and safely discard that which I cannot control. With practice, I can train myself to recognize this more and more easily. Soon I will mold and temper my mind in such a way to accept the stresses and weights placed upon it. If I can make disciplining my judgement a habit, I will flex where previously I would have snapped.  With practice, I will ride the waves of emotion that used to crash around me. I will forego uncertainty and excessive self-doubt for inner peace.


To domesticate your emotions, rather to be ruled by them – to stand up straight, not straightened – is to live in accordance with nature.[v] Only then can you respond properly to that which truly matters – matters of choice. Honest choice and just action are only possible with the clarity of a disciplined mind. So you must start at the beginning – which no one wants to do[vi] – with watching your thoughts and rejecting those judgements of indifferent things.[vii]

There is a fundamental distinction in every human life. Look at your hands holding this book, your body in a chair. Your body is the limit of your control. Outside of it, the world is subject to many other forces, mostly other people but also sickness and inclement weather and the passage of time. All of this cannot be changed. This essential distinction of control is the ultimate principle of Stoicism. It grounds all that is to follow.

Nothing outside of your control can be changed directly. But through memory and foresight, humans have a seemingly unique gift to alter the world now to better suit us in the future. While we can’t control the future, we can prepare ourselves, change our own minds and bodies, so that when the future inevitably but unknowingly comes, we are ready. You can ready yourself for the future, rather than wait for it to come.

At every moment, realize that the present – the remarkable ability to think this very thought – has suddenly passed. That thought in the line above is now more distant. And now, even further buried. But the past, regardless of how past it is, is always irrevocable by simple virtue of it having passed. That is, one minute ago may as well be one year ago, it makes no difference.

So at every moment divorce yourself entirely from the past. Free yourself from the responsibility of remembering it, for either: it doesn’t matter, or if it does matter, its use is separate from the negative feelings that accompany it.

Whenever you find yourself in the present moment – a snap of attention or focus or a simple awareness of the fact of life – look forward, for that present that was so clear a moment ago is already as distant as your childhood. Barrel ahead and make your future what you wish it already was.


To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea still falls around it.
—Marcus Aurelius[viii]

You’re eating lunch with a friend, who refers to you as a stoic kind of person. What, exactly, do they mean? Cold, emotionless, or overly rational is a fair interpretation. (You would be justified in taking offense at this, which would serve the additional purpose of disproving yourself as emotionless. Although, you quickly realize, taking offense solves nothing.)

While commonplace, this use of the word could hardly be further from the truth. The Stoics were intense, but they were not emotionless. Even the English word ‘apathy’ is a mistranslation of a Stoic word (‘apatheia’), which translates literally as ‘without suffering’. If you are truly apathetic, you would be more properly understood as ‘invulnerable’, perhaps even ‘secure’ or ‘free’.

This misunderstanding is telling. In fact, it is illustrative of the true teaching of Stoicism, which feel at times like Buddhism. Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “It is not always the pain per se but the way we see it and react to it that determines the degree of suffering we will experience. And it is the suffering that we fear the most, not the pain.”[ix] Too often, you think that emotions themselves cause problems. (If only you could be less angry, less jealous, more passionate, and so on.) Emotions are natural and cannot be denied or stopped. In themselves, feelings are not bad. It the anticipation and the fear that drives suffering. The mistaken belief that this feeling is bad, or harmful, or permanent. On the contrary, emotions are something to be enjoyed, and embraced, but not let grow out of hand. This is hardly a utilitarian desire to feel less pain – to feel in control is in itself a high form of pleasure. Emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, follow as a natural extension of life, as natural as the bones and muscles that make up our bodies. And all living things can be trained and strengthened.

This ideal state of apathy is available to all. Aurelius writes, “The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.”[x] Aurelius is establishing the second key tenant of Stoicism, that of indifference to indifferent things. Together these two principles of control and indifference inform three disciplines, or active practices, integral to a good life. The three disciplines of judgment, of assent, and of action, each concerned with a different scale and focus, each with their own strategies and mental imagery, but each relying on the distinction between what is within and without your control.

Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.


[i]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Jeremy Collier, 1701, III.9.

[ii]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), IV.3.

[iii] This is no quote I’m aware of, but I would not be surprised if it exists in some Stoic text. I may have read it and forgotten where, which can be said about many of the maxims written here.

[iv] See: Jean-Paul Sartre. Thanks Bart Van Wassenhove for making this connection explicit.

[v] “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “To stand up straight – not straightened.” Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, III.5.

[vi] “But it is not complicated.  It is just a lot of it.  And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made.  Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors?  We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal.  But you don’t care about that.  You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.” Richard P. Feynman, Take the world from another point of view, Television, 1973. quoted in Richard P. Feynman, Curiosity, Digital video, The Feynman Series, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTmGLzPVyM.

[vii] These are the teachings of the Stoic school, particularly the primary sources of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The style of argumentation with your personal demons is a mixture of Aurelius’ Meditations and Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. The deconstruction of Stoic doctrine into three fundamental activities – disciplines of judgment, assent, and action – can be found in Hadot, The Inner Citadel. and the relevant sections on Stoicism in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. I have attempted to mirror this theoretical structure throughout this book, drawing on Alan Stedall, Marcus Aurelius: The Dialogues (London: Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers, 2005). and Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2002) for inspiration in terms of style.

[viii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.49.

[ix]Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Delta trade pbk. reissue (New York, N.Y: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2005), 286.

[x]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.48.

Interview with Zachary

Augustine - Headshot

Stoicism Today: Can you say more about the ‘open-source’ element of this book?

Augustine: Sure.

I mean that the text is freely licensed and free to download. Why is a different story.

From the beginning, I wanted to write something that might help someone who may be struggling. When I was going through hard times, I found this relief in Marcus Aurelius. But I’m hardly a Roman Emperor, and getting your book into the hands of readers can be difficult for anyone. By giving it away, I could help more people and get more readers.

This is why I chose to license the book under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Such a license promotes what I think are positive uses — sharing, printing, remixing, classroom use, quoting in another work, and, hopefully, republishing — while snubbing any negative uses, such as reselling, unauthorized compilations, and piracy. The key aspect of the license is that it is ‘ShareAlike’, so any works based on mine need be licensed in a similar fashion. If a company wanted to take my book and resell it, they could, but they would need to say where they got it and make theirs This is what prevents commercial or otherwise unfair use.

Production-wise, the cover photo was public domain on Unsplash, and the fonts were all open-source projects, too. The result is that new ideas and technology allowed me to more easily present ancient philosophy to modern readers — at no cost to myself during production, or to my readers during distribution.

A final benefit is compatibility with the growing body of ‘open’ content. Copyright today wants to build each thing its own safe and isolated little pond, separate from everything else. But decades of this practice has dried up the ground between all the ponds, making it difficult for anything else to grow there. Those who are lucky or strong enough to build and maintain their own ponds are happy enough, but everyone else is miserable. So those who were left out got together and, little by little, built a tremendous reservoir with thousands of tributaries. Now, everyone who chooses to be a part of this new system benefits from everyone else. Their participation only improves the whole, too.

Stoicism Today: And what about the content of the book itself?

Augustine: Right–it relates somehow!

Just as the ideals of Creative Commons and open-source software purport an almost utopian vision of society, philosophy, too, idealizes its audience. It’s true that not everyone has access to the education, time, or money necessary to read. Despite this, perhaps because of it, philosophy has a long tradition of accessibility. This may seem a little counterintuitive when one considers ‘philosophy’ today. But the philosophy I know — and the philosophy that Stoicism Today also delivers — is by anyone and for everyone. This is what’s unique about Stoicism compared to other schools of thought: a notion that we are all students learning and practicing, however imperfectly, in an effort to better ourselves.

Like a student, a Stoic may revisit the same simple ideas many times in an effort to internalize them. Different than a student, however, a Stoic puts what they learn into action. What you learn changes you through the act of reflection. The philosopher wants to live a good life. In that sense, we are all already philosophers.

Practice becomes very important. One can always practice more to strengthen that most important of muscles: the mind. Thankfully, many Stoics practice by reading, and then rewriting what they found in their own words. This has led to a rich tradition of themes and images common to Stoic texts, a tradition I hope I have contributed to. The sense of practice, rephrasing, and repetition is lends Stoic texts an intensely personal flavour, and why the best of them — your Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Letters of Seneca, and Enchiridion of Epictetus — are actually personal writings. When these ancient authors sincerely express their vulnerability, the result is both empowering and humbling.

This is the experience that I wanted to give a modern reader, even if they hadn’t read a single word of philosophy beforehand. And for those who are more well-versed, I hope that the metaphors, quotes, stories, and historical allusions give philosophy that much more of a living character, and lend an impression more colourful than what a more academic text may offer. In my book, I try to make Stoicism come alive through stories, essays, dialogues, and letters in a conversational tone, just like the original Stoic texts that so many people find comfort in. Just as a Stoic sage might talk himself through a feeling anger welling in his gut, I tried to put this thought process down on paper to show philosophy in action, rather than simply talk about it. This kind of thought process was how Stoics used to practice, to cultivate a defence against all the negative emotions that tend to arise in every day life. And this is how many of them still do.


'Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity' by Michael Burton

Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity

by Michael Burton

A picture taken by Michael himself and used on his blog, accessible here.

Editor’s Note: Unlike some of our posts, this is an extended essay.

You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.

Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.

This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.

Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.

To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.

The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.

It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.

Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:

‘We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.’ [1]

All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.

Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.

This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.

The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.

The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:

‘Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.’ [2]

This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.

Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out: “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”[3]

Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good.  As Epictetus tells us:

‘As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it!’ [4]

Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened.  In the words of Epictetus:

‘Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.’ [5]

Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.

Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:

‘Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.’ [6]

Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.

This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:

‘Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveller takes care of a room at an inn.’ [7]

Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.

This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.

Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:

‘It’s unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfil itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’ [8]

Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.

The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.

An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.

Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:

‘Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.’ [9]

Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization. [10] Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.

To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.

Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way.  Epictetus reminds us:

‘Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.’ [11]

In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.

I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquillity are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.

Michael Burton is a Canadian secondary school teacher who enjoys writing about philosophy, education, or anything else that catches his eye. Michael’s other works can be found on his blog at https://stoicteacher.wordpress.com/. He can also be reached on twitter @stoicteacher.


[1]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.

[2]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.

[3]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.

[4]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.

[5]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.

[6]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.

[7]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.

[8]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.

[9]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

[10]Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.

[11]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Works Cited

Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48.

Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

'Stoic Resilience in Face of Illness' by Carmelo Di Maria

Stoic Resilience in Face of Illness

by Carmelo Di Maria

2015 didn’t begin well for me – the end of a sentimental liaison had caused me a lot of turmoil on the emotional front (lots of sleepless nights, crying, rumination, loss of appetite, chain smoking… you name it).  The bright side of it, though, was that in an attempt to make sense of it all, I started devouring self-help books, especially those about relationships and the insecure attachment style (me) and narcissistic personality disorder (him). Fascinating reading, I tell you.

And it was in this frantic pursuit of enlightenment and self-amelioration that I eventually landed on the shores of ancient Rome and got acquainted with the Stoics. I started reading a lot on their philosophy of life and it was music to my ears. For starters I’ve always been a fan of CBT and the idea that the Stoics could be considered the forerunners of this psychotherapy school made me immediately warm up to them. In addition, I was already used to stick on the fridge nice philosophical maxims, so their pocket-sized pearls of wisdom fitted the purpose beautifully. I also happened to love their pragmatism, the idea that you could do routine exercises – like the mantra-like repetition of maxims, the morning and evening meditations, the ‘view from above’ meditation, the pre-meditatio malorum (meditation on adversities) –  with the aim of training your mind in a sort of mental fitness regime. Through their reflective meditations you could practice being more mindful of your thoughts and emotions, reframing some aspects of reality, making sure that your actions fall in line with your values and above all that you have values in the first place and that they occupy a prominent place in your life, ultimately you could practice how to become a better person.

Personal development had always been a constant in my life (I had been struggling with self-esteem and an anger management problem for years) so in a sense the Stoics were speaking a language I could completely understand. It was a question of nodding all the way.  But there was one thing that for me represented a revolutionary new way of thinking, i.e. the idea that some of the things generally most valued in life have no intrinsic value, namely: money, health, reputation, and everything else that lies outside our sphere of control. These things fall under the category of ‘externals’, things deemed outside our control and therefore ‘indifferent’. What are instead of the utmost importance, the Stoics thought, are our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, in a nutshell whatever is under our control and can lead us to live life according to virtue.

Health was the one aspect of life deemed by the Stoics ‘indifferent’ that stood out for me. Here were some people who were saying that if you’re suffering from ill health, it doesn’t really matter, it’s your attitude that count: ‘The thing that matters the most is not what you bear, but how you bear it’ (Seneca, On Providence) or ‘Remember too on every occasion which leads thee to the present difficulty to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations). This was very refreshing and comforting to hear for a person with two chronic conditions. So from a feeling of inferiority and impotence and of being somehow ‘less than’ when compared to healthy people, I began to see my value as a person reinstated and judged according to different standards: my resilience, my strength, my dignity, my ability to reframe things. I must say if I was yearning for a CBT fix, the Stoics were providing me with one of epic proportions, taking reframing to a whole new level. Money? Health? ‘That is nothing to me!’ This is how Epictetus was inviting his students to address aspects of life considered external, indifferent. The idea being that the only thing that matters is your character, being the best you can be and be strong in the face of adversity. It may sound a bit of a radical statement at first, but you can clearly see its value especially for somebody who is currently facing adversity. And whether you are indeed currently facing adversity or wise enough to prepare for it, Stoics suggested the practice of ‘pre-meditatio malorum’: imagining that something bad may happen to you and by so doing reaching the twofold goal of preparing psychologically for it, i.e. getting rid of the element of shock and surprise that might otherwise overwhelm you, and secondly appreciating your current situation. There have been times when I have meditated on my health condition worsening or even on my own death as a practice. The Stoics’ invitation to remember that ‘thou must die’ or otherwise known as ‘memento mori’ is something else that resonates me. Gone is the taboo typical of modern societies which makes death even more morbid and scary and in is a healthy realistic acknowledgement of death as a part of life: as Seneca said, life is a constant dying, each day that goes by means getting closer and closer to death. And if you’re ever despairing about your health condition, feel overwhelmed by a sense of injustice and anger, and are inclined to think ‘why me?’, the Stoics, on the back of their cosmopolitan view of the world and a sense of brotherhood in humankind, would be likely to reply: ‘Indeed, why not you?’

In sum, it seems to me that people with chronic conditions would derive a lot of comfort and a renewed sense of pride by adhering to a Stoic philosophy of life and following its precepts. All you need to do is showing resilience in crisis, acknowledging that some things like health are not under your control, but your attitude towards them are, not cursing your lot and instead accepting it with equanimity and good grace (‘Don’t demand that things go as you will, but will that they happen as they do, and your life will go smoothly’), taking inspiration from role models, historical figures and contemporaries alike, who may have faced adversity with strength and dignity.

The meditative practice of ‘A view from above’ is yet another invitation to distance oneself from an egocentric view of the world and embracing one of connected humankind. Incidentally, it is only by seeing it in the context of a big human melting pot that your pain becomes smaller and doesn’t morph into suffering. It is only by looking at the big picture and considering yourself as an infinitesimal part of the universe, a tiny grain of sand, and viewing your difficulties as nothing compared to all the misfortune on the planet and across the centuries, that you have any hope to minimise your suffering.

Where so much in the health literature seems to point at how to best manage your chronic condition, and patch things up as it were, but never highlights the strengths and qualities which can be derived from it (something referred to as ‘post-traumatic growth’ in certain quarters), stoicism allows us to take a different stance. The only good in life is virtue and you can be proud of yourself if you show courage, resilience and wisdom in the face of adversity.

And if the Stoics place so much importance on the meditation of adversities and on the reflection of life’s transiency, a chronic patient’s brush with mortality puts him/her in a position of advantage for carrying out both practices. He/she can more easily contemplate a deterioration of his/her health for example or meditate on death itself. Likewise, a person living with a chronic condition can more easily savour all the things in life one can be grateful for. A rose smells nicer when you happen to have a more vivid sense of how transient life is. Finally, if you are ever troubled by the brevity of life, make every day count, as Seneca suggests in the following two quotes:

‘Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little’ (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

‘Begin at once to live and count each separate day as a separate life’ (Seneca, On the Futility of Planning Ahead).

Because if it’s true that the Stoics bang on about ‘memento mori’ (remember that thou must die), the inevitable corollary is a resounding ‘memento vivere’ (remember to live).

Carmelo Di Maria is an Italian living in London. Loves to smile and have a laugh.  Taurean to the bone. Has a soft spot for parmigiana and rugged men. Hopes to teach one day a blend of mindfulness and Stoic reflective meditation to people with chronic conditions. Best thing that’s ever happened to him: his mum. (I could go on but I edit things down for a living).

'“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship' by Sherman J. Clark

“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship

by Sherman J. Clark

Stoicism is enjoying something of a popular renaissance, as books, blogs, and the like explore the stoic ethics of Epictetus and Aurelius as way of dealing with distress and misfortune. But stoicism is potentially strong medicine; and the cure, if fully digested, may be worse than the disease. Stoic insights, taken seriously, can have troubling implications, primary among which is the possibility that a life of true stoic virtue would be bleak and joyless. If we inure ourselves to distress, as stoic thought has us do, perhaps we also deny ourselves the possibility of joy.

Of course, the potential joylessness of stoic thought can simply be denied or disregarded as people take what comfort they will from a selective application of stoic principles. Those writing about stoicism often adopt this strategy, and simply assert that stoic thought need not be bleak. But hopeful assertions do not make the implications go away; and it is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully. Moreover, coming to terms with the potential bleakness of stoicism also sheds light on other potentially problematic aspects of stoic thought.

Indeed, the potential pay-off of confronting and resolving these questions is not merely a more coherent and attractive vision of stoicism. A deeper vision of stoicism offers an appealing if partial response to the seeming meaninglessness of modern life. If, as Dreyfus and Kelly put it in All Things Shining, Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age, perhaps stoic thought also offers us the means to stave off its unwelcome progeny.

As is often the case with difficult problems, the first step is to recognize its existence and severity. So here I begin by describing how stoic principles, if taken seriously, can lead not just to peaceful apathiea, but beyond that to empty malaise. I then consider the inadequacy of several familiar seeming-solutions to the problem. That allows for the identification of a form of deeply satisfying joy that flows from rather than denies the implications of stoic insights. In the process, it will also illuminate other seemingly strange or discomforting aspects of stoic thought.

The heart of the matter, or so I argue below, is this. True stoic joy—and thus, if one embraces a stoic view of human nature, true eudaimonia—flows not merely from renouncing or conquering concern for indifferent matters. Rather, it comes as a result of an appreciation for and sense of connection with the awesome beauty and order of the cosmos, compared to which the petty concerns of life—pleasure, pain, wealth, poverty, illness, health, fame, death, and the like—are seen as the nothings they are.

On this vision, stoic practices and development should focus not on overcoming distress directly but rather on nurturing our signal human capacity to appreciate and feel connected to the beauty order of the universe. And this we can best do in the company of friends. We thus inure ourselves to distress not by closing ourselves off from joy and from others, but rather by opening ourselves up—opening our eyes and minds to a deeper and more human form of shared happiness and thriving.

Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable?

Stoicism eases distress by reminding us that the things we tend to worry about—wealth, power, physical pleasure, and the like—do not really matter. They do not matter because they are not really ours—not “on us,” as Epictetus cogently puts it. They are not in our control; and beyond that, they are no part of what makes us better or worse as human beings—indeed no part of what makes us human at all. If we allow our happiness to depend on such things, we are neither free nor fully ourselves. So we should not care about those things. Instead, we should care only about what is ours and in our control—our judgements and attitudes and actions.

Moreover, for the thoughtful stoic, setting aside all other, external, things turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because those things are not capable of producing lasting well-being anyway. The mature stoic recognizes that wealth, power, and pleasure are illusory goods—promising satisfactions they are incapable of delivering, and in the process tempting us to stress and worry over the pursuit of things not worth pursuing. And so too are the opposites of these things merely illusory evils. Stoic insight reveals that misfortune, pain, even death, are nothing. So we should not care about such things—not let them worry us.

Much stoic thinking is focused on this aspect of stoicism—learning how to not allow seemingly-bad things to worry or distress us. It is seen as a set of tools for dealing with difficult circumstances. To some extent this focus makes sense. Letting go of the pursuit of fortune and pleasure is easier said than done; and becoming indifferent to misfortune and pain is even harder. For those suffering what they experience as misfortune, or living with stress and worry, peace of mind is a worthwhile goal, and not one easily attain. Nothing I say here is meant to dismiss the value of seeking tranquility through stoic thought.

But here I want to assume that goal attained. What follows? Assume you have freed yourself from worry over things that are neither truly yours not truly worthy of concern. You are indifferent to wealth, pleasure, longevity, and other such false goods; and you have no fear of poverty, pain, death, or other such seeming misfortunes. Now what? Or, given that no one will achieve perfect equanimity, perhaps we should rather put it this way: to the extent that you have achieved indifference to such things, what room is left for joy? If nothing is worth worrying about, what is or can be worth getting excited about?

One possible conclusion—the possibility to which I am seeking an alternative—is that nothing is worth getting excited about. Perhaps the stoic path, if pursued fully and honestly, leads not just to a place of serenity and peace of mind but also to some not-particularly-appealing territory somewhere between apathy and melancholy.

Hamlet is, on this as on so much, illuminating. Without describing the titular Prince as a stoic, which would rather beg the question at hand, we can see that he fully—perhaps too fully—grasps the essential stoic insight that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet II, ii, 247-48. Beyond that, he admires those whose character manifests an awareness of this insight, as evinced by the explicit reasons he gives for loving and admiring Horatio:

                                   ‘. . . for thou hast been—
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’                                                          Hamlet III, ii, 62-71.

We are not told how Horatio has achieved this ideal stoicism; but assume for our purposes that he has done so in the stoic way—by being aware at some perhaps-unexamined level that “Fortunes buffets and rewards” are not worth worrying about.

While we do not see much of Horatio’s inner life, we see plenty of Hamlet’s. And perhaps what we see there shows us what happens when the stoic awareness fueling Horatio’s equanimity is examined, and is followed to its conclusion by a more powerful mind. Hamlet recognizes that the things of this world or not worth worrying about, and recognizes further that this is because they are really not worth much at all:

‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
Hamlet I, ii, 133-34.

So, the question can be framed in this way. Can we be Horatio without becoming Hamlet? And should we want to? Can and should we take solace from the realization that the things of the world do not really matter, without facing the potentially bleak realization that the world and our lives in it are indeed “flat, and unprofitable”?

One possible answer is that we need not worry about the implications of having conquered fear and pain through stoicism, because no one will ever really conquer fear and pain. But that is like saying that we need not worry that we are climbing out of the frying pan into the fire because we will never get out of the frying pan anyway. If we hope that stoic thought can work to conquer distress, we need think about what happens when it does. Moreover, if we confront honestly the potentially bleak fact that the material concerns of this world truly are indifferent, we are then in a position to think about what is worth getting excited about.

Five Partial Responses

Aside from simply denying or deferring the problem, there are a number of familiar and seemingly appealing responses to the potential bleakness of stoic thought. I address five such below. Much more has and could be said about each; but for present purposes the bottom line is that none prove ultimately satisfactory, because none get to the heart of the matter.

The fact that many stoics are joyous

Epictetus, from what we can tell, seems to have been a cheerful enough fellow. And if you attend a conference of modern stoics you will find more cheerful Horatios sharing a pint than gloomy Hamlets bemoaning the meaningless of life. Doesn’t this demonstrate that stoic thought does not lead to bleakness? No. It is hopeful evidence, yes: but it does not answer the question. First of all, we do not know the inner lives of others; and many a cheerful pint-sharer, stoic or otherwise, has been known to face a demon or two when the party is over. More to the point, we have already granted that the stoic path is pleasant enough during its initial stages—when it leads us away from worry and distress. What we want to know is what happens if we continue down the road.

This question could of course be addressed as a matter of empirical psychology. Do people who find comfort and tranquility through stoicism also find apathy and malaise? As difficult as it would be difficult to isolate the impact of stoic ideas from other social and psychological factors, such research would be useful. But it would not resolve the question at hand. Grant that some can adopt stoic ideas a-la-carte, follow the path of stoicism only as far as they find it helpful, and thus avoid confronting the potential implications. Still, thoughtful and intellectual honest stoics will want to know. What happens if one takes stoic thought seriously? Does joy for a stoic require on-going denial and self-deception? Must we, like Claudius, view our philosophy through “an auspicious and a dropping eye”—trying not to confront the implications of what we hope will give solace?

The doctrine of preferred indifferents

A potential response from within stoic thought is the idea of so-called “preferred indifferents.” According this doctrine, although the things of this world are indeed indifferent, it is consistent with our proper functioning as human beings to prefer certain of those things to others. All else being equal, we can better practice virtue and thrive if we are healthy rather than ill, safe rather then in danger, fed rather than hungry. Grant then that the stoic need not scorn the goods the world offers, so long as he or she does not get attached to them—so long as he or she does not really allow those things to matter. But that leaves us where we began—facing the seeming fact that nothing is really worth getting excited about. However well the doctrine of preferred indifferents may serve as an explanation for the stoic’s participation in the ordinary pursuits of life, it provides no basis for him or her to take real joy in those pursuits.

Indeed, unless we are to imagine the mind as a sort of one-way valve—able to take joy from something without sorrowing at its loss—the doctrine of preferred indifferents offers no answer at all to the question of where and how the stoic might find joy. To the extent that stoic thought does its first job, and frees us from concern over worldly things, it thus also brings us face to face with the problem at hand.

Indifferent things as virtue-vehicles

A more promising, if still not-quite-adequate response is that even things that are themselves inherently meaningless can be valuable as vehicles through which we develop and display the virtues that make for a good and authentically-human life. An example, borrowed from Epictetus, is pick-up basketball, which I enjoy. Nothing hinges on the outcome of a game at the local gym or playground. It simply does not matter whether I win or lose—or even how well or poorly I play. But the activity provides a vehicle for the nurturing and display of things that do matter—not just physical skills and fitness, but teamwork, fairness, toughness and the like. These are real and valuable virtues—on stoic terms in particular.

This is an important and overlooked aspect of stoic thought, as it helps explain why the stoic should, as a normative matter, give care and attention to the things of this word, despite their intrinsic insignificance.  It does not, however, answer the question at hand. We still need to know—or may be driven to wonder—whether the virtues so-nurtured are capable of not just engendering admiration but also of bringing joy.

Joy through engagement

Epictetus’s ball game example might make one think that the answer is right before our eyes. While playing basketball, I do not tend to ponder the seeming bleakness of life. Rather, the experience is one that Csikszentmihalyi has described as flow—a feeling of full engagement in the activity and moment. This sort of experience is available not just through sports, of course, but through a wide range of activities that provide attainable but difficult and engaging challenges to occupy our thoughts. This might suggest that the answer to stoic malaise, or to malaise more generally, might simply be that—engagement. And so it might.

But at bottom this avoids rather than answers the question. Perhaps in the end all we can do about the potential bleakness of stoic thought is find ways to distract ourselves from it.  But if we want rather to confront and come to terms with the seeming pointlessness of life, engagement with inherently-pointless things cannot be the only or ultimate solution.

Joy through service

But that in turn suggests a deeper and potentially more satisfying response. Perhaps joy comes not merely through engagement, generally, but engagement with something worthwhile—in particular the service of others. Viktor Frankl put it this way:

“[H]appiness . . .  cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

 At some level, this is the most appealing response. And I would certainly never find fault with anyone who finds joy in the service of others.

But at a deeper level this too begs the question. Help others, yes. But help them do what? Serve a cause greater than oneself, yes. But what cause is worth serving? Recall that the stoic has fully recognized that the things most people care about—money, health, and the like—are not in fact worth caring about. They mean nothing. And to put the matter starkly, helping others do meaningless and pointless things cannot be a satisfying source of meaning and purpose. So then, perhaps the answer is to help others do things that are meaningful? And there’s the rub. We are back where we began—wondering what if anything really is worth doing.

Of course, we can forestall the question, perhaps indefinitely, by focusing on people’s basic needs. Just as one need not confront the ultimate implications of stoic thought while he or she is still just trying to overcoming distress, the survive-focused stoic can forestall the question of what is ultimately worth caring about by focusing on helping people get the basic necessities of life. Helping others—especially with their basic needs—is a good thing to do; no doubt about that. But it does not resolve the problem at hand.

Imagine that you live in world where everyone is entirely obsessed with painting their fingernails as brightly and colorfully as possible. That is how they measure success, what they worry about, and where they seek joy. You, the stoic, find that all completely pointless, and are glad to be free of any distress or worry over your fingernails; but, of course, nor are you able to take much joy from your fingernails. So you long for something more. Now imagine being told that you should find meaning, and thus joy, in helping other people paint their fingernails as rightly and colorfully as possible. Now, that might indeed be the right and best thing you could do, if others do indeed take joy in their fingernails—and if you believe them not capable of better; but it would not answer your problem.

Stoic Joy

The best answer, I believe—and the answer most consistent with stoic thought—is that true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight. The key is to recognize that the thoughtful stoic sees the universe not just as ordered but as awesome. Stoic joy, I suggest, is the joy of comprehension and connection—the deeply human satisfaction one gets from seeing and appreciating how it all fits together, and how one fits into it all.

Indeed one could argue that seeing and appreciating the order and beauty of the universe is not merely a particular good, the enjoyment of which is consistent with stoic principles, but is in fact a central component of eudaimonia. In Aristotelian terms, our distinctive human function as rational agents is the ability and desire to seek reasons for and make sense of our actions, and thus our lives. Thus the centrality of phronesis in Aristotelian virtue ethics.

But perhaps this capacity and inclination to make sense of our actions and our lives is really just a component—a self-regarding subset—of deeper and more distinctively-human capacity to find comprehend and make sense of our world as a whole. Whatever one thinks about the ability of other animals to do things that resemble deliberation, it seem safe to say that we are the only ones who wonder at things with no direct or obvious connection to our own lives. Our signal human capacity is perhaps not merely agency guided by practical reason, but wonder driven by love of comprehension—not merely phronesis but philosophia.

If so, the search for stoic joy is also the best way for stoicism to help us deal with misfortune and distress. Next to the rich and satisfying joy of even partially-comprehending and feeling connected to our awesome universe, the difficulties of life, even death, will be nothing to us. Stoic growth, therefore, should perhaps not be sought primarily through exercises designed to help us deal with distress directly. Rather, perhaps we should focus on learning, and helping each other to learn, how to see our world better and more fully.

Moreover, this shifts our focus outward and away from a self-centered focus on what we as agents do, towards a broader appreciation of a world in which we are just a small part.  It may seem as though the shift from seeing ourselves as feature actors to extras/audience is to diminish our role. But perhaps it is better seen as maturation. We are not child-star divas—only interested in the show if we can be the star. Stoicism is Copernican in this way—helping us understand ourselves better by forcing us to confront the initially-troubling but ultimately-liberating realization that we are not the center of the universe. Yes, “you may contribute a verse,” as Whitman put it; but the key is “that the powerful play goes on.”

If this sounds pale, too-passive, or inadequate, it is perhaps because we have not yet developed the capacity to see and appreciate how powerful the play really is. Stoic thought suggests that if we could only comprehend our world better, we would see that next to the chance to see and share in this exquisite order, the petty concerns of life are nothing at all.


And this helps illuminate how sciences can be understood as virtues. The key first step is to recognize that stoic virtues are not merely persistent habits of conduct. Stoicism is on this point more Platonic or Socratic than Aristotelian, in that virtues are better understood as insights, habits of mind, and resulting capacities. As the stoics framed it, living virtuously and well is a techne and an episteme, grounded in a set of attitudes—in particular an attitude of hypoexairesis, or lack of concern with external goods or outcomes.

The kinds of behavior typically identified as virtues are thus better conceived of as symptoms—external manifestation of internal orientations. Temperance (sophrosyne), for example, is the capacity to eschew what others crave, because you know that those things are not truly worth craving. Temperate conduct is merely what flows from this awareness and attitude. Courage (andreia) similarly manifests itself as the habit of conquering fear, but is more essentially a capacity grounded in an awareness—an awareness that the things people fear are not worth fearing.

Similarly, physics can be described as the capacity to grasp and appreciate the underlying beauty and order of our world. It is a techne and an episteme grounded in awareness of the world’s underlying unity and awesomeness. If so—and if the capacity to perceive and appreciate this beauty and order is indeed the central component of an authentically-stoic and deeply-human joy—then it makes sense to see physics as a central stoic virtue.

This vision is not limited to people who actually do physics at the highest level or for  a living. It suggests rather than the inclination and ability to see how well and wonderfully the world fits together is a crucial and vital skill for all who hope to live well and fully. That said, actual physicists do provide something of a paradigm. If you have ever seen one when he thinks himself on the verge of a breakthrough, you will know what I mean. He cares nothing for the petty concerns of the world. He just has something so much more awesome in view. He feels himself to be getting a glimpse of the cosmos, the logos.

Aurelius, in some sense the grimmest of stoics, devotes the great bulk of his Reflections to what we might call the negative side of stoicism—reminding himself in various ways that the things of the world do not matter and thus should not command are attention and should have no power to disconcert us. But there are two passages in the Reflections in which he explicitly takes up the question of what is worth our attention, and how a person who has fully internalized stoic insights can, by attending to those things, find joy.

The first is at 3.2, where he notes that “if a man has a deeper feeling for and insight into the workings of the whole” even the most common things in nature will have the capacity to bring joy—how grain grows, fruit ripens and decays, bread bakes, beasts feed, men and women age. These things, unnoticed and unappreciated by most, will call out to and inspire a person who is “truly attuned to nature and nature’s works.”

A second passage, at 8.26, is brief, and worth translating here in full:

‘It brings joy to a man to do a man’s true work. And a man’s true work is goodwill to his fellow man, disregard for the motions of the senses, skepticism about misleading impressions, and contemplation of the whole of nature and the things than happen according to nature.’

One word is in this paragraph is worth some attention—ἐπιθεώρησις, which I have translated here as “contemplation.”  This is a rare term in Greek, and one that Aurelius does not use elsewhere. It suggests more that mere observation, or even careful appreciation. There is also a connotation of desire and motivation, as emphasized by the play on the etymologically-unrelated verb ἐπιθέω which means to rush at or pursue. On this reading, what brings joy is not merely passive contemplation or even comprehension, but engaged appreciation.


Like much agent-centred thinking, stoic thought can appear intrinsically self-regarding or selfish. And at one level it is. Focusing on the virtue and thriving of the actor leaves open the possibility that others can be seen as mere instruments though which the virtuous actor achieves eudaimonia. The Roman Stoics repeatedly emphasize the duty to play one’s appropriate role in the community and care for others; but it is not clear that this commitment flows from rather than acts as a hedge against the implications of stoic thought. Moreover, if, as the stoic realizes, one’s own material circumstances—are not really worth worrying about, it is hard to see how other people’s material circumstances should provide any greater cause for concern.

I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior. Eudaimonist thinking does not work that. It is the case, however, that the understanding of stoic virtue described above does offer some hedge against the potential selfish implications of stoic thought.

If stoic virtue as a techne and an episteme grounded in certain attitude and aimed at a deep and satisfying appreciation of and connection to the beauty and order of our world, the virtuous stoic will be driven to concern for and connection for others. This is because the best way to see the order and beauty is with the help of others and the best way to see feel connected to the whole is thought connections with others. Stoicism may not require a sense of shared community responsibility; but it does call us strongly to it.

A desire to comprehend and appreciate the world motivates concern for others in several ways. Above all, learning is best done collectively. Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic. Socrates did not talk to himself. Second, learning calls for institutions and communities in which it can take place.

So, at the very least, our joyful stoic physicist needs a lab, a library, colleagues, grad students, and above all a community in which they can be brought together and brought to bear in the effort to see better and rejoice in the order and beauty of the universe. And if he is thoughtful, he will thus cultivate and care for the community that supports this effort. More deeply, less instrumentally, and framed in terms of eudaimonia, perhaps the full flourishing our nature as not just rational/knowledge-loving but also social/political animals calls on us not merely to see and appreciate the order and beauty of our world but also to engage in shared and mutually-supporting efforts to do so—and to structure our community life in ways that nurture that effort.

Recall also that the stoic joy described here is not just a product of contemplating the universe as if it were a thing apart, but also feeling one’s place in it, one’s connection to the larger whole. Connections then—relationships, friendships, family, love—are themselves a way of sensing the whole. Caring for others joins us to the whole, conquers isolation, and allows for reciprocal connection that can be felt as well as comprehended. Perhaps the true stoic is thus driven to connection and concern for others. And this is especially true if what joins us to others is our shared effort to learn, teach, and see. To Hamlet, Horatio was not just an ideal stoic; he was an ideal friend. And he was first a school friend—a fellow learner.

Consider, finally, the vision of stoic joy offered by Frost in his poem “The Star Splitter.” Near the beginning of the poem, Bradford McLaughlin gives up worrying about earthly things—represented by his farmhouse—which were bringing him little joy. Instead, he makes a dramatic, indeed stoic, turn away from such matters—reframing his concern about the seeming-foolishness of his own conduct as “curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

‘He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.’

Nor does he satisfy his curiosity alone. Near the end of the poem, the narrator joins him.

‘I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.’

In this vision, stoic apatheia is not itself the goal, or even a first step, but rather a consequence. A lack of concern for inherently-indifferent things comes as result of having something better on our minds. Stoic thought is in this sense what Socrates called for in the Republic—a turning of the soul, not a turning off. It is less renouncement than refocus, and thus leads not to apathy but engagement. It turns our attention to something which, if to it we can attune our minds, will not only reveal the meaningless things of the world to be beneath the concern of a human being, but can also reveal in their stead a meaningful and truly human joy.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

'Anger and Pre-Emotions' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Anger and Pre-Emotions

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Leonidas Konstantakos

For Seneca, it is by understanding what anger is that we can avoid it or seek the appropriate therapy. This implies that it can in fact be avoided. In De Ira, Seneca proposes a Stoic cognitive view of anger that consists of a series of physical and mental steps, or qualifications, to meet the definition. The cognitive aspects that define the emotion are within our control. Anger, for Seneca (and his view is quite orthodox Stoicism), is a species of desire- a desire to take vengeance for a (perceived) wrong. (1.2.3b) Moreover, anger involves various physical and mental phenomena (phantasiai, impressions in Stoic parlance) and beliefs or judgments about those phenomena. Let’s begin with the formulae for pathe, emotions, as viewed from within Seneca’s philosophical tradition.

The third scholarch of the Stoa, Chrysippus, had systematized the following criteria that must be met for a belief of judgement of this sort to be a pathos: 1) it must assert that something is good or bad; 2) it must be recently formed; 3) it must be false; 4) it incites an excessive impulse. (Gould, 191) The excessive impulse here means that it is irrational- excessive and disobedient to the dictates of reason.[1] By this criterion, in the grips of a passion we first assent to the impression that something is, say, a punch in the face. We may experience psychosomatic responses (a flash of spirited feelings, quickening of the pulse, etc.) due to the initial impression which is involuntary: the sense-perception of being struck, and the supervening bodily responses. What follows in anger is an assent to the impression that this is an undeserved offense[2] and that it is appropriate to seek retribution for the perceived harm. This leads to, but is not yet, anger. Anger manifests when these judgements become disobedient to reason- that is, they incite excessive impulses that are no longer controllable. By Stoic definition anger is always excessive and harmful.

The utility of Seneca’s discussion is that it allows us to be aware of the pre-emotions that lead to our false judgements and to anger if left unchecked. Seneca outlines the steps to anger in Book Two. The first part of the emotion, or pre-emotion, is what later came to be referred to by the Alexandrian Christian authors as propatheiai. These are the involuntary psychosomatic responses that are not under our control. When referring to anger, this initial phantasia is, for Seneca, merely the “first mental jolt produced by the impression of an injury.” (2.3.5) The pre-emotion, the impression (not the judgement) that one has been harmed, is not anger because by itself it does not yet involve the subsequent judgements. Reason cannot overcome them, although Seneca suggests that “perhaps their force can be lessened if we become used to them and constantly keep a watch for them.” (2.4.2) We perhaps cannot help that some things seem terrible (e.g. an assault) or that some things seem good (e.g. revenge), but as rational agents we can decide whether or not we assent or withhold assent to those impressions. In modern terms, Seneca’s discussion allows us to realize that we are experiencing the feeling of anger without necessarily having to experience the emotion of anger. By understanding our involuntary psychosomatic responses, and understanding that it is not necessarily the case that we have been offended, or at least that it is not the case that revenge is now appropriate, we need not experience these negative, destructive emotions.[3] We often confuse these initial responses for emotions and believe we must, or that it is appropriate to, act in a certain manner.

A vivid example can be borrowed from the popular psychological story, James and the Bear, for the sake of understanding Stoic propatheiai. If James were asked what falling in love feels like, he might give a description of his psychosomatic responses: weakening of the legs, shaking of the hands, dizziness, paleness, a sudden loss of mental ability, etc. Yet if James is asked what terror feels like, his list of psychosomatic functions may be identical, or at least overlap significantly. But when James walks through the woods and is suddenly confronted with a snarling bear, there is no question which of these previous emotions he is experiencing despite their similarity in feelings. It is in the judgements about the impressions (that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, and that it is appropriate to be terrified) that lead to the emotion of terror.[4] The initial impression of the snarling bear and the accompanying psychosomatic responses are involuntary, but the judgements that lead to the emotion are not. Similarly, when Seneca is confronted with an irritating impression (a slanderous insult, or to keep with our theme, a punch in the face) he can have the feelings of anger (which are unavoidable) and still understand that these feelings are not yet anger. He can judge that nothing evil is happening (due to his Stoic axiology) and not have to contend with the further belief that retribution is warranted. Also there will be no chance that these judgements will be carried to an excessiveness that is disobedient to reason, and hence Seneca will not experience the pathos of anger. The Stoic model is useful and plausible for anyone threatened with becoming angry, and can provide emotional therapy even for those who do not accept adiaphora- the Stoic axiological doctrine of the indifference of externals.[5]


Gould, J. (1970). The Philosophy of Chrysippus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Seneca. (2010). Anger, Mercy, Revenge; translated by Robert A. Kaster and Martha Nussbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Despite the focus on the Stoic account of emotion in recent years, it is important to note that the sufferer of the emotion is not healed when the emotion has passed due to time (2) or because it no longer excessive (4). The sufferer may still erroneously believe that there is good or evil present or in prospect, and this is the fundamental error, rather than any damage that the emotion can cause. Moreover, the sufferer may have the false belief that it is appropriate to be elated or angry or grieved. It is these false beliefs, and their extirpation, that are the foundational problems. The Stoics argue that this is the time for their cognitive therapy- after the impulse has downgraded from emotion to merely false beliefs about the presence or prospect of something good or bad, and the further judgment of the appropriateness of the emotion.

[2] By ‘offense’ I mean that we here judge the strike as something bad that has happened. This is the first of the false beliefs in the Stoic view. According to Stoic axiology (that only the agent’s own vice is a present evil), this judgment errs.

[3] Or any of the pathe, which by definition involve a false belief.

[4] The two need not coincide, e.g. the park ranger may have the (false) belief that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, but not have the further (false) belief that it is now appropriate to be terrified.

[5] That is, those who believe that it is not the case that there is no evil present- or more simply, those who believe e.g. being punched is a present evil. They may have this belief but realize that it is not the case that one must act in a certain manner (seek revenge). Moreover, non-Stoics can accept that pre-emotions are not yet anger and can only lead to the pathos of anger if they assent to the impressions.

Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further.