'Stoicism in the Service Industry' by Christopher Edwards

Stoic Solutions for Practical use in the Service Industry

by Christopher Edwards

Marcus from Christopher

“Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”
– Michael Caine

A successful server is like the duck in Michael Caine’s quote.  Not everyone in the Service Industry stays calm though. There is a spirited concoction of challenges swarming about, both interpersonal and mental for the Service Industry professional. A Stoic solution exists, though, in practising the principles of this ancient philosophy, helping to effectively navigate the often stressful realities of the restaurant business.

I’ve been working in the restaurant service industry, in a variety of Front of the House (FOH) positions, from casual-high volume to fine dining, for about 14 years now. I’ve been practising Stoicism as a philosophy of life, (off, but mostly on) for a little over two years and have loosely practised it for more than 10. It is my experience that implementing these ancient principles works to keep a cool head in this Industry.

Challenges On A Busy Shift

I will first walk you through the common situations, pace, and challenges a server encounters during a busy shift at a casual high-volume restaurant. Then I will go over a few crucial nuggets from the later Roman Stoics that have not only helped me in life and in the Service Industry, but I believe can be applied successfully by anyone in this business. …but first, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“First, do not be upset: all things follow the nature of the Whole, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere… Next, concentrate on the matter in hand and see it for what it is. Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man’s nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity.” (Meditations 8.5)

See if the above passage helps you spot opportunities to practice Stoic principles in the paragraphs ahead.  Keep in mind that servers in North Carolina and many other states aren’t paid minimum wage. It’s $2.15 per hour. They live off their tips. They also have to tip out support staff a percentage of tips and/or sales. If you don’t tip, the server is essentially paying for you to dine out.

What Service Can Be Like

It’s the middle of a dinner rush. You have a 5-table section. You’ve just been “stiffed” (i.e. left no tip) by a table of three guys. A couple sits down and you greet them, “Hi my name’s Chrysippus and I’ll be taking special care of you this evening.” We’ll call this table, table A. You go through the spiel of featured drink and menu specials. The lady at the table sizes you up with a mean look. You give them a moment to glance over the menu.

A second table (table B) has just sat down 30 seconds ago. “Hi folks, I’m Cato the Younger and will be taking care of you tonight….” They let us know immediately that they’re in a hurry and are trying to make the eight o’clock movie. So you, without hesitation, take their drink and food order promptly, then head directly to the Point of Service (POS) workstation to enter the order. As you pass by table A, you check to see if they’re ready to order. They seem okay, still immersed in the menu.

As you’re entering the server station to enter in table B’s order and retrieve their drinks you see the Hostess seating a party of 5 (Table C) in your section. You take a deep breath. After delivering the drinks to table B you figure you have enough time to take take table A’s order. “What are we drinking tonight?” “Well, we’d like a bottle of your Reisling, but we have a question about the chutney on your Salmon special.” “Yes,” you reply?” Could I have it without red peppers?” You’re pretty sure it’s already pre-mixed, so you tell her as much, but to do the right thing, you tell her that you will go ask and return shortly.

Before asking about that, you must greet table C. They are a group of young college kids celebrating a birthday. You introduce yourself and tell them about the drink specials, but don’t take any orders. On your way to enter in the Riesling order for table A, you see there are 2 other Servers in front of you in line at the POS Micros workstation.  While you are waiting you ask Server 1 in front of you if it is possible to get the chutney on the Salmon without red peppers? “How long have you worked here?” she asks sarcastically. You don’t say anything. Server 2 answers your question, as he finishes up entering in his order “No, it’s premixed. They can’t separate it. Offer a different topping.” You thank that Server.

As you’re still waiting to put in your order, Server 2 says, “I’m going to be a minute, I have to cash out a six top. The other Micro at the other end of the restaurant has a line at it with other Servers as well. You run to the bartender, to give him heads up that you’re about to ring in a bottle of Riesling, so it’ll be ready to deliver after you ring it in. You see that Server 1 has about another minute, and you’ve made it known that you’re next in line. So during that minute of downtime you rush to make 5 waters for your college kid party of 5. Okay, finally you enter in the wine order for table A.

You make a decision to drop waters off at the 5 top, telling them that you will be right back to take drink and appetizer orders, but first you think to yourself, you must present this bottle of wine to Table A. While presenting the bottle of wine you see that Table B’s food is arriving. They are pleased. Good! After taking table A’s appetizer and entree order you check on table B to ask if they need anything else? “Extra honey mustard.” You dart “elegantly” as possible back to the Server station to retrieve a ramekin of honey mustard for them.

When you go to squeeze the bottle, nothing comes out. The lunch closing Server didn’t restock the honey mustard. You run downstairs to the kitchen to get some from the Chef expediting. He looks like he could use a valium, or rather a Stoic week or two under his belt. The kitchen’s crazy. Before you get to voice your request for back up honey mustard, he barks at you, “Cleanthes! Run these plates to table 32!” You tell him you need backup honey mustard. He tells you to run that and come back for it. He gives you a ramekin of honey mustard but stresses to have a food runner do that kind of work next time. There was no food runner around at the critical moment when things needed to get done.

Throughout this honey mustard excursion people keep pouring through the door. You see that you just got sat a three top. The place is getting busy and coming alive. You deliver the honey mustard, and refill drinks at Table B then head immediately to table C to take drink orders. They all give you a look that says, we’ve been waiting and are ready to order. To lighten the air of tension between the guest and yourself, you ask whose birthday it is. They all look at this one young lady who blushes with upper middle class entitlement. You charmingly tell her that she gets a free desert and to start thinking about which one she wants. She smiles with all eyes on her. The tension eases.

During that moment you begin taking drink and appetizer orders. They all get beers. After putting in the order, you pause to think what the next thing to do is. During that moment the manager interrupts your train of thought asking you to take a bus tub of dishes to the dishwasher because the Server Assistant is currently clearing a large table. It is while performing this side work that you realize you need to print table B’s check, so they can make their movie, and that you have a new table (Table D) that still has to be greeted.  All this is happening at the pace of 100 ballerinas dancing frantically to 90’s punk rock, dunking and dodging as gracefully as possible, trying to be that calm Duck paddling like Hades.

You drop the check at Table B. Next, you greet your three top (Table D) and apologize about the wait, then take their drink orders. You see that Table A has finished their appetizers, so you clear the plates from the table and head by Table B to pick up their payment. On your way to run their payment, you see that you are getting seated again (Table E). There is a line at the Server station again. You wait in an antagonizing limbo where you’re tortured with the things that have to be done but can’t do them until you do this thing first. You run table B’s card and make change for a 20 they gave you, fix drinks for table D and deliver them, take table B their card and change, wishing them a fantastic evening, then head to table C to take their food orders. It’s getting hairy.

Table E asks if you can turn the music down after you greet them. On your way to the Server Station to put table C’s food order in, you check on Table A as they just got their main course. They want to see a wine list. On your way to retrieve a wine list you stop by table B to pick up your tip. When you make it to the Server Station finally, the manager speaks harshly to you about not pre-bussing table B, i.e. only picking up my check and not clearing the rest of the table. “I don’t expect to have to tell you that again.” He’s clearly stressed. You start to feel like you don’t have any job security. You don’t. While he’s flaring red, you ask if he can turn down the music in the section where Table E is. He gets flustered and does so.

Upon delivering the wine list to Table A, you check on table C. They all request more drinks. Before entering them in though, you go take table D’s order. Two parents and their daughter. The daughter asks a lot of questions about substitutions and has a lot of complicated order modifications. You give them another minute to make a decision and try to keep a smile on your face as you approach table E. You take their drink order. On your way to put in Table E’s drink order and to pick up the 2nd round of drinks for table C, table D calls out to you, “we’re ready to order now.” To be a good and fair Server, you have to tell them, “just one moment, please. I’ll be right back with you.”

So you go put in table E’s drink order. While doing that, Server 1 is impatiently tapping her foot behind you, hovering. You have to focus. You take Table C their 2nd round of drinks before heading to table D to take their order. They ask for a lot of modifications and you can see Table A growing impatient, ready to order more wine. you also see that Table C is getting their entrees. You get table A more wine. Table C is beckoning for attention.

So much to do. Several things at once. Must keep composed. You have to pee. You’re beating yourself up for being such a Cyrenaic in college and not finishing your degree. You’re thinking if the tips are worth the acting anymore. What else can I do for you folks at the moment, you ask? ” “Can I have extra honey mustard?” “Of course.” “Another beer?” “Certainly.” “Yes.” “Absolutely.” “My pleasure.” “HEEEELLLLLPPP!!!!!!”

Okay, hopefully with all that, you get a sense of the oftentimes, difficult and chaotic pace of a high volume restaurant shift. It’s not always exactly like that. But usually, the money comes from these high stress shifts. So, how on earth is one supposed to keep it together during all that? When customers are demanding and running you around; when you have to endure the cattiness and mean tempers of co-workers, and take crap from your superiors. When you’re doing everything you can to be as efficient as possible with your time, but you still get stiffed from that one table that couldn’t be pleased. What about the pace? …accelerated heart beat, people engaging in substance-less conversations loudly; feeling the hectic rush that a fast paced shift entails… knowing that you’re not able to give the service you want to give because so many things have to be done, seemingly at once. Thank goodness for the Stoics.

Stoic Solutions

Let’s get right to it! One thing that works for me is to meditate on what my day may consist of, upon awakening. Then I do it again, as a quick pre-shift meditation, before walking in the door of the restaurant. This could also be paired with a similar technique called Negative Visualization, where one visualizes potential adversities befalling them, without dwelling on them, throughout the day, so when and if it does happen, you’ve allowed yourself the capacity to foresee it, and hopefully prepare for it.

Marcus Aurelius gives us an account of how to do this in Book 2.1 of his Mediations:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

Another late Stoic, slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, has something useful to say about preparing oneself for the reality of certain places, events, etc. Try applying Chapter 4 from the Enchiridion to the Service Industry, specifically, before going into a serving shift, and see if it helps you better map out the potentialities therein:

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’

Holy cow Epictetus! You said it. Reading, meditating on, and practising this stuff can make the difference between staying cool during a shift or having a swarming stress box of a head, wearing the face of a very uncalm duck. Speaking for myself, the practice of doing this on a regular basis helps me anticipate difficulties, and curves my reaction to these difficulties. When people start acting nuts and catty, I pause, and say, “…that is the nature of this industry.” I don’t have to take it personally. When the pace gets out of control, I smile to myself and say, “I will carry on the best I can, and will not be taken away to high levels of stress by these impressions… just do what’s in front of me.”

One of the most helpful key elements to use in the Service Industry from the Stoics, for me, is the dichotomy of control as Epictetus lays out in Enchiridion 1.1 – 5:

[1] We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control…

…[5] So make practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’

It is a good thing for a restaurant and for me financially, when we get busy, but it can be quite the stressful thing to endure. When it gets crazy, and I am “in the weeds,” I don’t have to freak out. I slow down, focus on what needs to be done, and in what order, and do it to the best of my ability. Again, with practice, you’ll find the calm within this awareness, increases. When a customer is overly perturbed at not getting the perfect service and experience they feel entitled to, you don’t have to take it personally. Stay professional, but keep moving. What is the next right thing to do? They cannot harm your prohairesis (faculty of choice)!

Managing Impressions and dealing with difficult people and situations:

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.27)

Essentially, practice being indifferent to things that are outside of your control and resolve to press on, kindly, with your duties.

This next one by Marcus should be reserved for when events or people are really begging for permission to get under your skin, or when you’re contemplating the relevance of JUSTICE over social kindness and need to simply avoid interactions with difficult people as much as possible:

What sort of people are they when eating, sleeping, coupling, shitting, etc.? Then what are they like when given power over men? Haughty, quick to anger, punishing to excess. And yet just now they were slaves to all those needs for all those reasons: and shortly they will be slaves again” (Meditations 10.19)

Be careful here not to get onto a Stoic “high horse” though. Some people are fundamentally flawed or conditioned in ways which predispose them to seemingly “mean” behaviors. You still have to work or interact with these people, just keep your prohairesis straight!

Then there’s this:

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20)

This is where I like to pause, breathe, and consciously think first… “What is in my control?”

I ask myself too, “What is said person trying to tell me (if it is a fellow employee or superior) that pertains to my job, rules, correct procedures, etc…. Because oftentimes, co-workers and customers (let’s just call them people) say and intend relevant things, but in a mean way, or with a smothering tone. And I know I’m not alone in having an equally cut-throat reaction to some of the harsh language and stressors a service industry professional endures. The thing with practising these principles though, is that you can learn to assess these emotive-thought reactions against a calm, rational criteria… then, hopefully… Stoic-on!

Dealing with the crazy pace:

These are a few of my favorite principles to implement. Here, I try and keep an expansive philosophical perspective, which has a calming effect, while staying engaged in the grind.

“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence – and the thought that each individual things is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.17)

“You can strip away many unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgement. And you will immediately make large and wide room for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, contemplating the eternity of time, and reflecting on the rapid change of each thing in every part – how brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32)

This is definite consolation that your shift will be over soon. It will also help you stay right sized (at least you don’t have to stay two hours after closing, like the dishwasher does. Be nice to him or her). If situations or people become increasingly difficult, it might be helpful to pair these last two exercises with a quick view from above which Marcus also advises in Meditations 9.30. I have, on a few occasions, had to go to the bathroom and do this along with some deep breathing and cognitive distancing. Afterwards, I leave the bathroom calm, and carry on without going to pieces.

Now, I want to stress how all of these principles compliment one another. You manage the negative impression of your Manager talking down to you by deconstructing the facts. “He is talking down to me. He obviously feels justified in doing so. Where is he coming from? It is in my power not to take offense from his outbursts. That is within my control. It is my duty to continue to work the best I can, where my integrity allows, given whatever situation arises. And, didn’t I understand that something of this fashion was bound to unfold anyway?”

These are principles that work perfect in theory within the Service Industry, but one will only be able to see the benefits from them by practising it daily! Seneca, a later Stoic, advises us to ask ourselves before retiring at night, what progress we made that day, how did we excel in our character. Well, if you didn’t throw your hands up and curse your boss or a customer out, then you’ve succeeded. If, in spite of a particularly difficult customer, you maintained the standard of good service, then you have conquered an army. So, although the interpersonal and mental challenges within the pace of a busy shift are difficult, practising these Stoic principles creates space for a certain peace and clarity, to see what’s the best way to navigate each situation, maintaining your moral purpose, as a working member of society. Be like the duck.

Do not look around at the directing minds of other people, but keep looking straight ahead to where nature is leading you – both universal nature, in what happens to you, and your own nature, in what you must do yourself. Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man’s constitution is the social… (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 7.55)

Christopher L. Edwards works in the Service Industry in North Carolina. He is also a singer-songwriter who draws on philosophical themes.  He uses Stoicism primarily in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, but finds that practising it as a philosophy of life makes for eudaimonia. For more of Christopher’s experientially-based reflections on practical uses of Stoicism in relation to recovery, the service industry, and living the good life, check out his site, A Stoic Mime’s Blog.

Other People's Anger – Resources and Reflections from Epictetus

Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler


One of the more troublesome of human emotions is that of anger.  It was just as much so in antiquity as it remains for us today.  Anger is one of the more complex and paradoxical emotions, seemingly arising from natural drives, desires, and aversions common to human beings, but also interconnected in so many ways with moral notions such as right and wrong, merit and expectations, valuing and disvaluing, and especially with a conception of retribution, setting things right, or making another suffer in return. Playwrights and poets, historians and politicians, philosophers, rhetors, and religious thinkers – even unnamed people passing down proverbial wisdom – concerned themselves with understanding and addressing this difficult and often destructive emotion.

Although we enjoy a number of advantages over ancient people in our late modern present time, on many topics, they still have much to teach us. I think this is particularly so in matters concerning the emotions, rationality, habits, choices, relationships, happiness, and the goods around which we orient our lives. Anger fits solidly within the matrix of those concerns, and the Stoics in particular provide a lot of valuable considerations and advice about that emotion. (In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should mention that although I draw upon Stoics as a resource, I’m not in full agreement with them at every point about anger).

As editor of Stoicism Today, one of the perks of the position is regularly contributing posts that might be of use, value, or interest to the readers of the blog. In a post last month, I set out my intention to write a series in the following months, dealing specifically with the issue of anger and what Stoic philosophers can contribute to understanding and addressing it today. That first post was rather general, and of what you might call a promissory or projective nature. With this post, I intend to start making good, by providing some substantive discussion of what Stoics can tell us that helps in dealing with anger in the present.

I’ve decided to start with Epictetus’ teaching about anger. Although Epictetus did not, as Seneca did, compose a treatise specifically about the emotion of anger, he did delve into the subject, and provide some very useful passages of advice, argument, and explanation in the course of his teaching, a portion of which we still possess thanks to his student Arrian. What he has to tell us from a Stoic perspective can be divided, along very broad strokes, into how we can understand and address our own anger, and how we can understand and approach anger felt and exhibited by others, in some cases towards ourselves. I’ll address his teaching bearing upon our own anger in next month’s post. In this post, I’m going to focus on a portion of what he has to tell us about dealing with everyone else’s anger from a Stoic perspective.

Anger As A Common Human Problem

Within the Discourses, there are a number of interesting examples of people who are in some way upset or affected by the anger felt and displayed by other people. Consider just a few examples:

  • A man comes to Epictetus, asking how he can persuade his brother to stop being angry with him (1.15)
  • People get angry with the many, the masses of humanity, for being fools, greedy thieves, robbers, cheaters, and so on (1.18)
  • Some parents get angry with their children for studying philosophy (1.26)
  • The legendary Medea engages in her terrible revenge because of her anger (1.28)
  • Acting contentiously, injuriously, angrily, and rudely lowers people to the level of wild beasts (2.9)
  • Some people study the works of philosophers, and nevertheless are hypercritical, quick-tempered. . . finding fault with everything, blaming everybody (3.2)
  • An official comes to Epictetus, angry with the common people, who get angry with him for taking sides in a contest, giving the prize to the person he favors rather than to the one they favor (3.4)
  • People get angry when other people get things they don’t, when the other person paid the price and they didn’t pay it (and actually come out better for it) (3.17)
  • Some people are quick-tempered, wrathful, fault-finders. They look for people they can punch or kick (4.5)

Although he doesn’t mention anger directly as a motive in those passages, there are also many places where Epictetus refers to the threats that others, particularly the powerful, may make against others. One can presume that in many cases those sorts of reprisals would stem at least in part from the feeling of anger on the part of the person who threatens to inflict them.

Given a long enough period of time, in any group of people, within any organization or community – and in our own time, especially, given any website, video channel, or blog that draws enough views! – someone is likely sooner or later to get angry with someone else, and probably express it as well. Often anger on one person’s part will arouse anger on another person’s part in response.

That is the reality in which we live, and it isn’t one radically different in its general features from the reality of the culture Epictetus himself inhabited. Quite likely, from a Stoic perspective, that’s also how we can expect human beings to be in any probable future as well.

Responses to the Anger of Others

A person can experience or adopt multiple responses on their own part to other people’s anger – whether it be directed against oneself, directed against yet others, or even anger more generally and globally expressed. Quite often our responses to other people’s anger are not reflective but more reactive.  These usually involving some thought-process or practically reasoning that is implicit rather than explicit. It is quite common, looking across the range of responses for our own emotions to be involved, also at times in ways we are not entirely aware of.

Some people actually ignore or seem oblivious to the feelings of other people, and that is one way to not have to deal with other people’s anger. Although people often use the term “stoic” in a very broad sense for that sort of attitude, that isn’t actually how a Stoic in the strict sense would suggest that we ought to live. And in quite a few cases, what underlies the surface façade of such detachment is rejection of other people, their actions, and their attitudes, indicating some sort of emotional attachment and conflict still present in the person.

Witnessing or bearing the brunt of other people’s anger can cause, contribute to, or intensify a range of emotions on our own part. One of the most common ones is fear, but we can also feel pain, sadness, even despair. Another common emotional response, which can be fed by these others, is to become angry oneself in response. In all of these cases, we can rightly talk about a person being “troubled” or “upset” by the anger of someone else. The classic Stoic view on emotions, which Epictetus accepts as a basis, is that emotional states are not simply affective. They involve judgments or assumptions, and usually some process of practical reasoning, made on the part of the person feeling the emotion.

What should our responses be to the anger that others exhibit? What insight does a Stoic philosopher like Epictetus (who certainly had to deal with this himself) have to offer us? Answering that will involve asking several other questions. Why are we bothered or affected by an emotion someone else feels, expresses, acts upon (or even just might feel, for instance when we worry about making someone angry)? How should we evaluate the reasons why another person’s anger affects us in light of basic Stoic doctrines?

Differentiating What Is From What Isn’t In Our Power

There are several ways that this classic and fundamental distinction made by the Stoics, between what is in our power, what is our business (ep’ humon), and what isn’t (ouk ep’ humon) applies to the issues raised by anger. Three of these are other persons’ emotions as externals, possible consequences of anger felt by others, and our responsibility for the emotions of others.

In Epictetus’ view, we do not, in any real sense of the term, control or determine how other people feel, think, or respond. That, just as much as things like the weather, our possessions, the state of the general economy, what gets published in any given newspaper, and so on is not something that falls within the providence of what is up to us. The feelings and thoughts of others are, to use the technical term, “externals” and “indifferents”. They aren’t the sorts of matters that we ought to allow to affect us. But, of course, we often do, and in the process effectively hand over control over our own psychological condition to other people or to the world more generally.

We may also be bothered or troubled by the anger that other people feel precisely because of how that anger manifests itself, what sorts of choices and actions it leads to, or even the threat of what a person who is angered might do. If we step back and examine why someone else’s feelings affect us in this way, we can then realize that it is because we care about – in Epictetus’ language, we have desire and aversion in relation to, and have assumptions, judgments, and assents about – what can indeed be affected by another person’s anger. If, for example, we are concerned about our possessions, our bodies, our social status, our positions, this makes us vulnerable to the effects of what other people might do or say in anger.

Even for a person who recognizes that, strictly speaking, another person’s feelings and judgements are something lying in his or her control, not within the scope of our own power, and who isn’t overly concerned about the external things that could be affected by another person’s anger, there could be another concern. It does seem up to us whether or not we do things that are liable or likely to make given people angry. So it seems that we then bear a kind of responsibility towards them, especially if these are persons who we are in some way connected with, people towards whom we have some kind of role and corresponding duties.

Two reminders Epictetus provides us can be quite helpful here. The first is that “Nobody is master over another person’s faculty of choice” (4.12), that is, each person ultimately is responsible for their own use or misuse of their prohairesis (their faculty of choice, or “moral purpose”). The second is that Stoicism stresses a choice, or better yet, commitment that needs to be made.

You cannot be continually giving attention to externals and your own governing principle. But if you want the first, let the second go; otherwise you will have neither one, being drawn in both directions. If you want the second, you must let the first one go. (4.10)

Understanding Why Other People Get Angry

The anger that other people feel and show can be very troubling to us, and a common question that people ask is: Why? This unfolds into a host of additional, more specific questions. What made this other person angry? Why did that make them angry? Why do they do the things that they do when they are angry? Why do they have to go so far in their anger? Who are they really angry with? Don’t they realize they are going too far, being destructive, throwing good things away for the chance to impose some kind of retribution?

There is a general answer to this – and many other such questions – that Epictetus supplies. People do what they do – including feeling what they feel – because on some level, in some way, that seems to them to be reasonable. We human beings do share a common stock of general ideas or conceptions (the proleipseis, a topic I’ll write more about at another time), but we vary considerably over how to understand and apply them within the concrete framework of our lives. In fact, the ways in which most people work these out are in some respects incoherent, involving conflicts or contradictions. Epictetus observes:

It so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable are different for different persons. (1.2)

Although it might seem at first that Epictetus is simply lapsing into a type of relativism about these matters, that isn’t the case. In fact, this variance among human beings about such fundamental issues of value is one reason he advocates education (paideia) and discipline or training (askesis) so strongly and consistently. We don’t start out naturally inclined to get these sorts of matters right, and we inhabit cultures in which most people are getting them at least partly wrong as well, in their concrete application. Stoic philosophy, when actually practiced (rather than just read, talked about, or thought about) helps to get these matters straightened out for people.

So, coming back to anger, when we ask about any given person questions as to why he or she gets angry, does or says these or those sorts of things when angry, holds grudges, takes offense – anything along those lines – the general answer is that, however it happened to be that way, what that person is doing seems reasonable to them. It seems to them, at least in part – since of course they can find themselves conflicted about it – that getting angry, and acting upon their anger is what they ought to do.

“I can’t let that person push me around,” a common line of reasoning closely connected with the feeling of anger runs. “If I do that, they’ll just keep it up. I’ll show them they can’t treat me like that.” That’s a person to whom it seems not only reasonable, but as the most rational thing to do, to get angry and to retaliate. That person may be entirely off-base – and Epictetus (along with the other Stoics) thinks that to be the case – but unless somehow that person’s viewpoint on these matters is changed, we should expect them to do what seems (wrongly, but reasonably) to seem most rational to them.

Addtional Approaches To Dealing With Angry People

We have a number of ways in which we can deal with or address other people’s anger. As noted earlier, we can reframe our own perspectives – though of course, this takes time to be able to do consistently, easily, when we want to – so that we rightly view and then respond to the anger of another person as something that is outside of our control, and only affects other things that are outside of our control. As we just noted, we can also understand the other person’s emotional response, and angry action or expression, as something that does seem reasonable and right to them, even if it isn’t really reasonable or right from a more adequate perspective.

Another thing we see Epictetus stressing is that it is up to us how we ourselves respond in relation to the angry person, particularly with those with whom we have some sort of relationship, a role that we occupy or play, and towards whom we thereby have duties or obligations. Typically the other person similarly has duties or obligations towards us as well. A common sort of case that Epictetus addresses is when one of our family members is angry with us, and for that reason behaving badly, in ways that don’t conduce to being a good sibling, or parent, for example. It is still up to us whether we feel and act as we ought to towards that person on our own part. That is, as Epictetus frames it, a decision about whether or not we want to maintain the good brother or sister, the good child or parent, the friend, the neighbor within us. That is something that does lie within our power when faced with an angry person, who is not fulfilling his or her own roles in relation to ourselves.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Epictetus simply advocates taking or tolerating whatever abuse, recriminations, argument, or other effects that person’s anger produces. It seems entirely consistent with Stoic principles of making good use of, e.g. the body, to remove ourselves from situations in which violence is occurring or being threatened by a person in a rage. Likewise, it might even be an expression of the virtue of courage to intervene in such a situation in which others are threatened, particularly those who are especially vulnerable, like children being bullied or abused by angry adult parents. But, these sorts of legitimate responses to aggression stemming from anger can be done in a variety of manners, which don’t require us becoming angry on our own part.

An important question remains, however, if we get away from those more extreme situations, and consider the people we interact with daily, who may exhibit all sorts of problems with anger. What should our approach or attitude be towards them? Epictetus provides us with three useful bits of advice, each of which sets out one line of behavior and attitude for us.

The first one starts with the following suggestion:

If you have to be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the misfortunes of another, pity that person instead of hating him; let go of this readiness to take offense and this spirit of hatred. (1.18)

In dealing with the anger of other persons – anger that from a Stoic perspective, will inevitably be unreasonable, but appear quite reasonable to the angry person – we could simply be unaffected emotionally. But if our emotions are going to be engaged, a feeling of “pity” (eleos), or to use the term people prefer in the present “compassion” is a much better response than anger, fear, disgust, or other negative emotions.

If anger is in general not a good thing for the person who feels it – and it certainly does feel bad much of the time (here just speaking from my own experience) – and if we see those who were are attached to, those we care about, those we are close with, shouldn’t we do whatever we can to help wean them away not only from their anger, but from the irrational assumptions, judgements, and thought-processes that help produce that emotion? In short, shouldn’t we guide them into the Stoic path? The second thing Epictetus has to tell us bears directly upon that:

Do you wish to help them? Then show them, by your own example, the kind of people philosophy produces, and stop talking nonsense (3.23) 

If studying and adopting resources from Stoic philosophy does help people deal with, and perhaps even eventually eliminate, the emotional response of anger, then it is up to Stoics who aim to preach about this to others to show those others not just how it works, but that it works. (Full disclosure here – I’m not a good example in this respect, though I’m working on it).

The third passage that strikes me as particularly relevant here is one in which Epictetus notes that sometimes one simply has to recognize that the person isn’t at that time up to grasping what one would like or hope they would, for their own sake. He asks:

Must I say these things to the multitude? For what purpose? Is it not sufficient for a person him or herself to believe them? (1.29)

He likens the “multitude”, or as we might say today, our “general culture”, to children who come up to us, cheerful about a holiday, thinking everything is well. It is better not to bring up that everything isn’t well, not to “rain on their parade”, as our contemporary expression goes, but to be cheerful towards them. He suggests then that if it turns out that you can’t get a person to change their perspective, for example about the anger they feel and express, to either just leave them alone or to exhibit that sort of cheerfulness.

In fact, it is – at least for some of us – enough of a task to figure out how to better deal with our own anger. It isn’t up to us to fundamentally change other human beings. As Epictetus points out:

. . . can we escape from human beings? And, how is that possible? But, can we, if they associate with us, change them? But who gives us that power? (1.12)

And so, in the next post in this series, we will turn to the closely connected topic of what Epictetus has to tell us about our own anger.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.

'The Musonius Rufus Diet' by Kevin Vost

The Musonius Rufus Diet

by Kevin Vost

Roman Food

And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many. First of all, the man who eats more than he ought does wrong, and also the man who wallows in the pickles and sauces, and the man who prefers the sweeter foods to the more healthful ones, and the man who does not serve food of the same kind or amount to his guests as to himself. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture XIIIB on Food [1]

Please do not let this title alarm you and perturb your Stoic tranquility!  Musonius Rufus (c. 20-30 AD – 101 AD), Epictetus’ revered teacher and mentor, would not have us counting calories, carbohydrates or any such thing. (Calories and carbohydrates would not be discovered until more than 1,700 years after his death, and even if he knew about them, he surely would have felt we have more important things to do!)  Indeed, I speak here of diet not in the sense of some exotic, time-limited food regimen designed to take off a few pounds, but diet in the sense the usual or habitual food and drink comprising one’s daily sustenance. The Stoics saw philosophy as an art of living that should guide all of our human behaviors and seek to harmonize them with nature. As several of Musonius’s discourses on food, clothing, housing, and even shaving show, Stoicism was (and is) a practical philosophy for living a good life; therefore, even the most mundane and seemingly un-philosophical of topics make fitting grist for the Stoical mill.

What Has Food to Do with Philosophy?

A great deal, according to Musonius, who apparently spoke frequently and fervently on this topic that he considered no small matter for any philosopher. Musonius believed that habits of eating and drinking either build up or tear down the very foundation of the virtue of temperate self-control (sophrosyne, in the Greek). There’s an old adage advising would-be brides that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” For Musonius, the way to a man’s or a woman’s self-control is through his or her esophagus and stomach! “Indeed the throat was designed to be a passage of food, not an organ of pleasure, and the stomach was made for the same purpose as the root was created in plants. For just as the root nourishes the plant by taking food from without, so the stomach nourishes the plant by taking food and drink which are taken into it.”[2]

Musonius devotes a two-part discourse (Discourses or Lectures 18A & 18B) several pages long to the topic of food, as preserved in a collection of, in essence, his post-lecture Q & A periods consisting of 21 discourses, or lectures, collected by a contemporary of his named Lucius and extracted in the fifth century AD by the Greek Joanne Stobaeus.  He gives several specific dietary recommendations, including a diet based on vegetables and grains and limited in meat (which he considered a heavy food, the digestion of which “darken the soul” and slow down our thinking abilities.  As for a summary in Musonius’ own (translated) words:

To sum up the question of food, I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should for that purpose eat only that which requires no great outlay, and finally that at table one should have regard for a fitting decorum and moderation, and most of all should be superior to the common vices of filth and greedy haste.[3]

Musonius Rufus Guts Gluttony before the Medieval Church Fathers

Musonius’ sage advice on the proper attitude and behavior toward food presages in many ways the advice of the Christian who five centuries later popularized the famous list of the “seven deadly sins,” Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 AD). Gregory, in his Moralia on the Book of Job, listed seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, sloth, and vainglory.[4] When St. Gregory, and later St. Thomas Aquinas, expounded upon the varieties of the sin of gluttony, they defined gluttony as an inordinate or irrational desire for food and described dangers of eating too much food, too-expensive food, too-daintily-prepared food, and of eating too quickly or eating too often. In the 13th century, St. Thomas cited an old medieval verse that summed up the various forms in which gluttonous behaviors are expressed: “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily.

Well, we find these concerns in Musonius’ back in the first century AD eighteenth lecture as well. He warns of the gluttony of eating more than we should; of eating luxurious, gourmet foods, indeed, of “wallowing in the pickles and sauces”; of being a picky eater; of preferring sweet foods to healthy ones; of eating greedily and at “unseasonable times.” He minces no words, and warns us that gluttony makes us more like pigs or dogs than rational human beings.  He advises us to train ourselves to appreciate simple foods. Indeed, he lauds the example of the Spartan, who, upon seeing some finicky man refuse to eat an expensive bird, declared, “I could eat a vulture or a buzzard.”[5]

And here is where our great Stoic philosopher and our great medieval Catholic theologians share an even more important common ground on gluttony. St. John Cassian (360-435 AD), Eastern desert monk turned abbot in Marseilles, France, wrote in his Conferences about eight vices. Now vices are essentially bad habits, dispositions, or tendencies, the opposite of the good habits that are the virtues. Cassian’s list, echoing an even earlier list of eight “disturbing” or “assailing” thoughts expounded by desert monk Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 AD), would later be adapted a bit by Gregory and Thomas, as noted above, and become widely known as the seven capital vices (and even more widely known as the seven deadly sins – sins being acts of vice, literally vicious acts.) The connection with Musonius here is not so much this list of bad thoughts, vices, or sins, but the way in which they interact.  Hear Cassian on this point:

Although these eight vices, then, have different origins and varying operations, yet the first six — namely, gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, and acedia (anxiety, or weariness of the heart) — are connected among themselves by a certain affinity and, so to speak, interlinking, such that the overflow of the previous one serves as the start of the next one. For from an excess of gluttony there inevitably springs fornication; from fornication, avarice; from avarice, anger; from anger, sadness; and from sadness, acedia. Therefore these must be fought against in a similar way and by the same method, and we must always attack the ones that follow by beginning with those that come before. For a tree whose width and height are harmful will more easily wither up if the roots which support it are exposed and cut beforehand, and pestilential waters will dry up when their rising source and rushing streams have been stopped up with skillful labor. [6]

Note then how these vices act in a sense like eight deadly dominoes, each on setting up the man in its thrall to fall into the next one.

Later, Gregory would state in his Moralia that “unless we tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely, our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.”

Our Stoic Musonius Rufus, 500 years before Gregory, (and 300 before Cassian) also saw gluttony as a gateway sin of sorts. The temptations of gluttony are before us every day, and if our powers of self-control are eroded through gluttony they will not rise to the challenge in other more important areas of our lives. Musonius warns that,

Although there are many pleasures which persuade human beings to do wrong and compel them to act against their own interests, the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat. We encounter the other sources of pleasure less often, and we can therefore refrain from indulging in some of them for months or even years. But we will necessarily be tempted by gastronomic pleasures daily or even twice daily, inasmuch as it is impossible for a human being to live without eating. Consequently, the more often we are tempted by gastronomic pleasure, the greater the danger it presents. [7]

For the great Catholic theologians, gluttony is a turning-away from the true good of God for the sake of lesser goods that can do our bodies harm; and our foundational Roman Stoic held virtually the same view. He warns that some intemperate men “resemble pregnant women…they cannot tolerate ordinary food; they have ruined their digestive system.”[8]

Citing Socrates before him, who said we should eat to live rather than live to eat, this is why Musonius counseled a moderate intake of simple, inexpensive, natural, healthy foods (No wonder Musonius explained in Discourse 11 that the best job for a philosopher was that of a farmer!).

The Original “Mediterranean Diet”

It is always an interesting thing when modern scientific research “discovers” what ancient philosophers discovered long ago through ordinary experience examined by rigorous reasoning. The modern, so-called “Mediterranean Diet” is patterned after the kinds of foods and drinks traditionally consumed by the peoples of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (like Greece and Italy, of course). The base of this diet’s pyramid is formed by a daily predominance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, herbs, spices, and olive oil, with at least a few weekly servings of fish and other seafood, less frequent and moderate portions of eggs and dairy foods including yogurt, a very limited intake of meat and sweets, and the optional consumption of red wine in moderation.

The Mayo Clinic and many other respected medical sources tout this as one of the world’s healthiest diets for maintaining ideal bodyweight and reducing the risk of heart and other diseases. When U.S. World and News Report gathers nutritional experts to rank the world’s best and worst popular diets among dozens of contenders each year, the Mediterranean Diet comes in each year in the very top few.

How fascinating to consider that the Mediterranean Diet and a so-called, “Musonius Rufus Diet” would be just about the same thing!  Indeed, Musonius warns against food imported from distant lands and he notes that people who eat the normal, inexpensive foods of their own region are healthier and stronger than those who crave exotic foods not a part of the standard Mediterranean fare.  He even declares that slaves and country people who eat such simple native foods are healthier, sicker less often, less fatigued by labors, work harder, and become stronger than their masters and people who live in the city.

On Enjoying the Banquet of Life

The Musonius Rufus Diet, then, is a diet of sensible moderation, of asking yourself how much you need rather than how much you desire, of appreciating simple, natural foods, and of gratitude toward God and table manners towards one’s fellows fitting to a being made in God’s image. It is a diet that builds both a temperate soul and a tempered body that will serve as the foundation for acquiring and expressing all of the virtues. As Musonius’ star student Epictetus would later advise us, comparing life itself to a banquet:

Remember, you must behave as you do at a banquet. Something is passed around and comes to you: reach out your hand politely and take some. It goes by; do not hold it back. It has not arrived yet: do no stretch out your desire out toward it, but wait until it comes to you.[9]

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, the University of Illinois at Springfield, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. He has served as a research review committee member for American Mensa and as an advisory board memory of the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainers. Dr. Vost is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).

[1] Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus Fragments (New Delhi, India: Isha Books, 2013).

[2] Lutz, 88. I’ll note here as well that while our word gluttony derives from the Latin word “gula” for throat or gullet, the Greek term for it was gastrimargia, literally “gut madness!”

[3] Lutz, 90.

[4] Pride is often included in the list instead of vainglory. Gregory, like St. Thomas Aquinas after him, included vainglory among his seven, identifying pride as a yet more profound sin, one that gives rise to the deadly sin of vainglory and to all the others.

[5] Lutz, 22.

[6] St. John Cassian, The Conferences (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 183-196: http://www.pigizois.net/agglika/on_the_eight_deadly_sins.htm.

[7] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (CreateSpace.com, 2011), 73.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Nicholas B. White, trans. The Handbook (Encheiridion) of Epictetus, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 15.

'Stoicism and Celebration' by Helen Rudd

Stoicism and Celebration

by Helen Rudd

A lady in the village where I live wrote a poem about how we need to celebrate more which I agree with.  So what I do is, every day at 10am I celebrate something.  It could be something major or something small, for example I could be at home on a lovely sunny day and at 10am I could go into the garden and listen to the birds singing and celebrate that.  Or I may have just had a lovely phone call from a friend which is something to celebrate.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Stoicism recently and because my daily celebration has helped me so much I wondered if I could relate it to modern day Stoicism.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve found that Stoicism has been a huge help in my recovery from a traumatic brain injury and I’ve become really interested in learning about how it can be applied to modern day life through the excellent ‘Stoicism Today’ website, the people who run it, and the Stoic weeks that are organised.

So this is my own view on the celebration idea. One of the activities in Stoic Week was to take time out in the middle of the day to meditate.  I did find it ever so effective but it didn’t necessarily fit in with my day, so this is a way of reflecting to fit in with what I’m doing.  I’ve come to the conclusion that adapting is a way of being Stoic so by reflecting on something in a way that suits what you’re doing at that moment seems quite appropriate. Celebrating doesn’t have to be done in a big way, it can just be done quietly in your own mind.

In my own way I’ve had to adapt since my accident. One of the things I used to do was running in my local half marathon but because of my balance and spatial awareness problems I can’t do this any more. I’ve discovered though that I can run on the spot indoors so that’s what I do now as cardio vascular exercise. Perhaps I could do it at 10 o’clock one morning and celebrate that! Stoicism is about accepting that there are some things you can’t change; it’s the way you deal with it that matters. I can’t change the fact that part of my brain has been damaged so I have to adapt.

A lot of people see Stoicism as ‘stiff upper lip’ but by celebrating something once a day I don’t see it as that. I think it’s recognising that yes, there are problems, so you go out of your way to just think of something good. I’ll never forget the kindness of one lady who posted a reply to one of my early blogs when I was trying to get my head round what had happened to me and find a way to cope.  She said ‘Be like the headland, with wave after wave breaking against it, which yet stands firm’.  I now read one of the Marcus Aurelius meditations each day and I was really pleased to see that this is one of his meditations. I often find myself thinking of it because it’s such a strong image (and I live round the corner from the sea!). So I got to thinking how the celebration idea could fit in with it, and I see all the problems going on both personally and globally as the breaking waves and the headland as the celebration.

So I’d recommend celebrating something every day at a time to suit yourself, and do something physical or just reflect quietly just as it suits you at the time.  It means that you don’t take things for granted, perhaps it may be something as simple as enjoying a nice cup of coffee.  I know myself that tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock I’ll be able to look back on writing this blog and see how far I’ve come since my accident 10 years ago and how terrible I felt when I was just starting to learn about Stoicism.

About the author: After Helen Rudd’s traumatic brain injury in 2006 she was in a coma for three weeks and was severely depressed when she realised how much her life had changed, mainly because she was no longer able-bodied.  Through stoicism her life has opened up and she now makes the most of every day.

You can read more of Helen’s reflections on living the Stoic Life:

Reflection One;  Reflection TwoReflection Three

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

Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia

by Leah Goldrick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endure and Renounce – Adjusting Your Attitude

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

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

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

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

Quickly Return to Yourself – Remembering What You Can Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion (2004).

[5] Seneca, Letter 92. 11-12

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

[7] Ibid., 6:52

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

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

'The Police Officer as Stoic' by Peter Villiers

The Police Officer as Stoic

by Peter Villiers

Police officer

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

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

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

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

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

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


–     much of police work is dull;

–     nevertheless, it often presents a conflict of objectives;

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

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

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

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism Applied to Policing

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


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


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

The Golden Mean

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

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

Self-control or Moderation

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


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

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

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

Police officers need to be aware that:

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

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

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

Effective Policing by Consent Requires Stoic Qualities

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

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

What does Policing by Consent Require?

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

                Those factors include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A scrupulous and unaffected dignity

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

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

Listening and acting: a worked example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

[3] Adlam and Villiers (2003).

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

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

'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.