Marcus on the Dichotomy of Value and Response by Chris Gill

This post is based on a talk given on April 25 2021 as part of the Modern Stoicism birthday celebration for Marcus Aurelius. I discuss two important features of Stoic thought which are potentially valuable for developing Stoic practice, and which Marcus’ Meditations illustrate powerfully. I call these features ‘the dichotomy of value and response’.

Part One: the Dichotomy of Value

One of the exercises most widely used in modern, applied Stoicism is what we call ‘the dichotomy of control’, that is, distinguishing between what is and is not within our control, and focusing on doing what we can control and not wasting effort and emotional involvement on what we cannot control. It is an exercise that Epictetus refers to repeatedly and that Marcus often recommends to himself. However, Marcus also explains, more clearly than Epictetus, the Stoic rationale for this distinction.

What underlies the dichotomy of control is the idea of a dichotomy of value: between virtue, and happiness based on virtue, and what the Stoics call ‘indifferents’. One of the most important ideas in Stoic ethics is that our happiness in life depends not so much on health, success or celebrity but on developing the virtues, notably the four cardinal virtues, seen as a unified set. As the Stoics put it, virtue and virtue-based happiness are really good whereas these other things are ‘indifferents’.

This does not mean that they have no value; things such as health, property, and success are normally seen by Stoics as having positive value. But their value is on a different (lower) level than virtue, and that is why they are described as ‘indifferents’. They do not make the difference between happiness and its absence, whereas virtue does. This dichotomy explains why we should focus on what we can control. Working towards developing virtue and happiness based on virtue is something we can all do (it falls within our control) whereas gaining ‘indifferents’ such as success and celebrity does not. We should not focus on ‘indifferents’, not just because we may not get them, but because they do not have the same value as virtue in helping us to live a truly valuable (and happy) life. They are thus not ‘good’ in the way that virtue and virtue-based happiness are.

Here is an illuminating statement of this dichotomy in the Meditations (key terms are given in bold):

If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … if you can see anything better than this, turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with this, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures. All of these, even if they seem to suit our nature for a little while, suddenly take control of us and carry us away. But in your case simply and freely choose what is better and hold on to that. ‘But what is better is what benefits me’. If it benefits you as a rational creature, then maintain this. But if it does so as an animal, reject it and hold to your decision without a big fuss. Only take care that your enquiry is conducted securely. (3.6)

Marcus brings out very clearly that, in shaping our lives, we should focus, overall, on developing the virtues (the virtues listed here are the four Stoic cardinal virtues, though with ‘truthfulness’ in place of the normal ‘wisdom’). These virtues, and the kind of life they make possible, count as ‘the supreme good’, and as ‘the rational and social’ good (a phrase discussed shortly). These are what is ‘properly good’, and what ‘benefits’ us, consistently and throughout our lives, in our actions, relationships and feelings.

By contrast, we should not focus in this way on ‘indifferents’ such as ‘the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures’. Marcus, in line with mainstream Stoic theory, recognises that such things have a natural appeal for us (‘they seem to suit our nature’). But if we treat obtaining them as our overall aim in life, the emotions this generates can ‘take control of us and carry us away’. The benefit provided by indifferents is at a different level from virtue, which benefits us by enabling us to express our nature at its best, ‘as a rational creature’. As rational animals, human beings have the capacity to work towards virtue (it lies ‘within our control’) and thus to shape our lives in the best possible way. The contrast Marcus draws here is fully in line with standard Stoic thinking on virtue and indifferents and also gives a strong statement of this dichotomy.

This Stoic dichotomy involves not just the distinction between virtue and indifferents but also the relationship of both ideas to happiness. Happiness, according to the Stoics, depends on virtue; it does not depend on indifferents (this is partly why they are ‘indifferent’), even though things such as health, property and social status have positive value and can form part of a happy life, if they are correctly used. But what is happiness (eudaimonia), for the Stoics? ‘Happiness’, in modern English, suggests feeling good or enjoyment – and that is all. In fact, Stoic happiness also includes feeling good. But for the Stoics, happiness is primarily conceived as a form of life, not a feeling; virtue, on the other hand, is seen as a form of understanding and character, while ‘indifferents’ make up the circumstances and conditions of the life.

The Stoics often present happiness as ‘the life according to nature’. What does this phrase mean? It implies a life according to human nature and according to nature as a whole (the world or universe). Thus, a happy life is one that fulfils the best qualities of human nature, which are, typically, presented as a combination of rationality and sociability. A happy life is also one that expresses the best qualities of nature as a whole. These are seen as a combination of structure, order and wholeness, and (for human beings following nature) the exercise of the best possible care for oneself and others of one’s kind.

The happy life is sometimes described as ‘the life according to virtue’; and these qualities of happiness are also presented as characteristic of the virtues. The virtues also express human nature at its best, marked by a combination of rationality and sociability. They are also seen by Stoics as marked by inner order and coherence or consistency, and by taking the best possible care of oneself and other human beings. This explains why happiness is presented as depending on virtue, rather than indifferents. The virtuous and happy life is one in which these shared good qualities are expressed, and in which the virtuous person makes the best possible use of the circumstances and conditions of her life (the indifferents), whatever these happen to be. So this is another aspect of the Stoic dichotomy of value.

Marcus conveys, powerfully, different aspects of this, rather complex, set of ideas. Although he does not often use the term ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia), he refers frequently to the idea of the life according to nature, presenting it in Book 1 as the goal he has adopted in life (1.9.3, 1.17.11). He also refers regularly to the idea that both the virtues and the happy life reflect the combination of rationality and sociability (e.g. 6.14.2, 6.44.5, 7.55.3, 7.72, 10.24).

In 3.6, for instance, the term ‘the rational and social good’ may refer equally to the virtues and happiness (that is, the best possible ‘human life’); both virtues and happiness can properly be seen as the main focus of one’s life. Marcus also evokes very often the thought that the best human life is one that reflects the order and coherence belonging to nature as a whole. The virtuous person is one whose actions express the order and coherence of nature as a whole and who accepts that her own life forms part of a larger natural order which has its own goodness. For instance (3.4.5): ‘[a virtuous person] gives his sole attention to how he might carry out his own activities, and attends continually to his own strand in the web; he makes sure his own activities are done rightly [that is, virtuously] and he is convinced that his own strand in the web is good’. (See also 2.9, 5.10.6-7, 5.21, 6.58.)

Marcus also conveys powerfully the idea that a life of this kind (a life ‘according to nature’ in these senses) brings with it the (Stoic) ‘good emotions’ including joy and serenity (2.17.4, 3.16.3, 4.23, 5.4). He thus brings out how the life according to nature includes feeling good, as a by-product of its main features. The close linkage between the qualities of happiness and virtue mean that the happy life depends solely on the possession and exercise of the virtues. A happy life can include indifferents such as health and property; but it does not depend on their presence, an idea that Marcus conveys frequently and vividly (e.g. 3.7.4, 5.29, 7.68, 12.26). Thus, this second dimension of the dichotomy of value is communicated strongly by the Meditations.

Part Two: the Dichotomy of Response

The second type of Stoic dichotomy is connected with the first, because it involves the relationship between virtue and indifferents. However, it is more immediately linked with Stoic ideas about ethical development, typically conceived as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis). The Stoics see ethical development as a life-long process, not just a function of childhood and youth; and a key element in this process is coming to understand the special value of virtue and happiness based on virtue, as compared with ‘indifferents’.

This process also brings about a transformation in other aspects of your life, including your relations with other people and your pattern of emotions. It leads you towards exercising the virtues in your expression of care for other people, and also towards recognising the fundamental kinship of all human beings, as rational and sociable animals. It is also a process that carries with it the experience of ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), such as goodwill and joy, which are in line with the possession and exercise of the virtues. This brings with it freedom from misguided, bad emotions or ‘passions’, such as anger, hatred and jealousy. ‘Passions’, typically, express mistaken beliefs, such as the belief that happiness depends on gaining indifferents, such as wealth and celebrity, or that our happiness and misery depends on the actions of others, rather than on whether we ourselves develop the virtues.

The dichotomy of response comes out very clearly in a well-known passage (2.1):

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right, and the nature of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.

Meditations 2.1

At first glance, this passage might suggest that Marcus is someone who finds it difficult to put up with other people or is prone to anger and irritation, and there are other places too in the Meditations that might seem to suggest this. However, I think that is a misleading impression. This passage is one of several on this theme, and there are parallels in Epictetus’ Discourses, which exhibit the same pattern. (See Meditations 5.25, 5.28, 5.31.3, 6.26-27, 11.18, 12.26; Discourses 1.18.3-16, 1.28.8-10, 2.22.36, 4.1.147.)

These passages describe an exercise, which we can call the dichotomy of response, like the well-known exercise of the dichotomy of control. The broader context is that of Stoic thought about ethical development, especially its implications for relations to other people and for emotions. The people whom Marcus prepares himself to meet (like most people) are presented as not having gone very far in the process of ethical development that all human beings are capable of. They do not understand that the only things that are really good are virtue and virtue-based happiness, rather than ‘indifferents’ like money and fame. This explains the way these people treat others, including Marcus, and it explains their attitudes and emotions (their being ‘meddling, ungrateful … envious and unsociable’).

The conventional way for someone to respond would be to show similar negative reactions in turn to the other people. But Marcus reminds himself that he has good Stoic reasons for not reacting in this way, reasons which are the result of his having made some progress in ethical understanding and development (‘I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right…’). He is not angered by their wish to do him harm because he knows that, in Stoic ethics, the only real harm we can experience is that of doing what is wrong and thus damaging our own character and understanding.

He also reminds himself that these people, like himself and everyone else, form part of the brotherhood of human beings, as rational, sociable animals, an idea vividly conveyed in the images in the last part of the passage (‘like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth …’). Forming relationships with others in the light of this idea is one of the features elsewhere associated with ethical development, that is, progress towards virtue and virtue-based happiness.

Thus, overall, passages of this type have a two-part structure. First, they present typical (morally undeveloped) ways of relating to other people and responding emotionally. Second, they recommend a way of treating other people and responding emotionally to them that reflects ethical development, as conceived in Stoicism. Hence, my suggestion that we have here an exercise in the dichotomy of response, part of training oneself how to relate to others, and a highly memorable one.

 In this passage, and some others, Marcus focuses on avoiding bad or misguided emotional reactions, or passions, such as anger and resentment. However, in other examples of this theme, Marcus uses the Stoic terminology for ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), which are in line with virtue. Here, for instance, Marcus imagines being surrounded on his death-bed by negative critics of his behaviour and reminds himself how he should react in that situation: ‘You must not, however on that account, depart thinking less kindly of them, but preserve your true character as one who is friendly, well-intentioned, and gracious’ (10.36.4). 

Again, in a passage similar to 2.1, he reminds himself: ‘If you can, show them the error of their ways. But, if you cannot, remember that kindness (or ‘goodwill’, eumeneia) was granted to you even for this’ (9.24.4-5, also 9.11). So here and elsewhere, the second leg of the dichotomy of response centres on reacting to negative criticism and attitudes by other people with constructive actions and warm, generous feelings.

The second response in the dichotomy matches an ideal that is firmly embedded in the Meditations and in Stoic thinking more generally. It is worth stressing this point since Stoicism is sometimes presented (especially by its critics) as marked by ‘detachment’ towards other people. Here, for instance, are two passages which match closely the second leg in the dichotomy of response.

You have not yet learnt to love your fellows with all your heart, nor yet do you have a complete understanding of the fact that doing good is a source of enjoyment. You are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet with the idea that you are doing good to yourself.

Meditations 7.13

Different people find their enjoyment in different things: what gives me enjoyment is to keep my mind unimpaired, and not turn my back on any human being or on anything that happens to the human race, but to look on all things with kindly eyes (eumeneis) and welcome and make us of each thing according to its worth.

Meditations 8.43

Both passages reflect the Stoic view that ethical development (movement towards virtue) brings it an improved understanding of how to express care for other people as well as bringing emotional attitudes (such as love or goodwill) which reflect that understanding. It is also worth noting a marked feature of Book 1 of the Meditations, where Marcus lists the good qualities that his relationships with other people throughout his life have enabled him to appreciate, and which have helped him to carry forward his own ethical development. Many of these features consist of humane, tactful or generous-minded ways of treating other people. A second feature, often coupled with the first, is that of warm and positive, as well as stable, emotional responses to other people. This extract, on the Stoic teacher Sextus, illustrates both points:

… perceptiveness in gauging his friends’ needs; patience with ordinary people and those whose opinions are not based on reflection; the ability to fit in with everyone, so that his company was more pleasant than any kind of flattery, while at the same time he aroused the greatest respect from those who were with him … never to give the impression of anger or any other passion but to be at once completely free of passion and yet full of affection for other people.

Meditations 1.9.5-7, 9; see also 1.8, 1.10-12, 1.14-15

Thirdly, here is an illustration of similar features that form part of the picture of the ideal Stoic wise person in one of the standard ancient summaries of Stoic ethics:

Since the virtuous person is affable in conversation and charming and encouraging and prone to pursue good will and friendship through his conversation, he fits in as well as possible with the majority of people; and that is why he is lovable and graceful and persuasive, and again flattering and shrewd and opportune and quick-witted and easy-going and unfussy and straightforward and un-deceptive … he is also gentle (praos) … and does not get angry in any circumstances.

Arius Didymus 11m, 11s, trans. B. Inwood and L. Gerson, The Stoics Reader, 2008, pp. 147, 151

These parallels show that the ideas found in Marcus’ presentation of the dichotomy of response are firmly embedded in Stoic thinking about the best kind of human life.

The translations used in this post are those of Gill (2013) and Hard (2011).

Suggestions for Further Reading

On virtue, happiness, and indifferents in Stoic ethics, see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987), sections 58, 61, 63; on ethical development (oikeiosis) and emotions, see sections 57 and 65. For an overview of Stoic ethics, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (2006), ch. 5.

On Marcus’ Meditations, on these topics, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (2013), esp. xxiv-xlix (also, more briefly, the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics translation (2011) by Robin Hard, pp. xv-xx. See also J. Sellars, Marcus Aurelius (2021), ch. 8; R. Waterfield, translation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, The Annotated Edition (2021), introduction, pp. xl-lvii.

See also M. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (2007), chs. 2 and 8; C. Gill, ‘Positive Emotions in Stoicism: Are They Enough?’, in R. Caston and R. Kaster (eds.), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World, ch. 7; C. Gill, ‘Stoic Detachment – is this a Myth?’, Philosophia (journal published in Athens), vol. 49 (2019), 271-86.

See also the two-part dialogue between C. Gill and T. LeBon on virtue and indifferents in the Stoicism Today blog archive.

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

The Stoic – May 2021

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization partners with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see some overlap in membership).

The Stoic Gym is pleased to announce the publication of THE STOIC, Journal of the Stoic Gym, May issue.

In this issue…LIVING AND DYING THE STOIC WAY

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Judging life by its length
  • BRITTANY POLAT. What does it mean to flourish?
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. How to deal with people
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. How to measure ourselves
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. How to increase the quality of our lives
  • FLORA BERNARD. Can we die a good death?

AND

  • ELBERT HUBBARD. The Story of Marcus Aurelius [2]
  • BOOK REVIEW. Whiting & Konstantakos, Being Better

PLUS OUR REGULAR FEATURES

  • Stoic Fellowship Directory
  • Stoic quotes for every day of the month… and more.

Read the magazine here. (Also available by free subscription.)

I Wouldn’t Hit You If You Didn’t Make Me So Angry by Mary Braun

About four years after my adoption, my mother and I were having a mini-vacation at her friend’s house and without provocation, she began telling me how horrible a person I was.

I had treated our host badly. We do not treat people this badly. We do not treat people like this. I had made our host feel very badly. It is never ok to make someone feel as bad as I had made our host feel. We were guests here and I was making our host sorry to have invited us. I was a shame and embarrassment to her. Only bad people made other people feel bad.

And it went on and on. And on. I was unaware of having done anything rude. I thought I had done everything I had been trained to do. My intentions had always been to be respectful. I never learned what I had done to upset our host, but whatever it was, I felt bad about it. 

Using the tools available to me as a twelve year old, I did my best to make sense of what she had said. Stripping the argument of its rhetorical niceties left:

  1. My mother is a reliable source of information.
  2. Good people do not make other people feel bad.
  3. I made our host feel bad. 

Therefore, I am not good.

No problems with this train of logic. I was well acquainted with it and my family regularly told me that I was not a good person.The conclusion was familiar and it flowed easily from the propositions above it which are all known to be true. No news here.

A second set of propositions could be brought up:

  1. My mother is a reliable source of information.
  2. Good people do not make other people feel bad.
  3. My mother is making me feel bad. 

Therefore, she is not good.

The conclusion could not be right. Something must have gone wrong. Steps 1 and 2 were givens. There must be something wrong with step 3: my mother was making me feel bad. 

Perhaps I didn’t feel bad even though I was pretty sure that’s what I felt. This was a possibility, but seemed silly. Alternatively, maybe I was feeling bad, but maybe I was feeling just a little bit bad. Maybe our host was feeling really bad. I was making other people feel even worse than my mother was making me feel! That would be horrible because I feel pretty bad! And if I’m making other people feel even worse than this, that is very terrible! I’m so sorry! This logic makes other people’s feelings more important and more reliable, than my feelings. It is easy to see how growing up with this belief could get someone into trouble.

Another belief that got me into trouble is the idea that people can make other people feel a particular way, that one person can control another’s feelings. I am responsible for how other people feel. It raises the possibility that other people are responsible for how I feel. Believing that I am responsible for how other people feel means that they can get me to act in ways that they want by telling me I am making them feel bad. It makes me easily manipulable. Believing that other people are responsible for how I feel absolves me of responsibility for the contents of my own heart and steals my power to control my own life.

Alternatively, perhaps there was an exception for my mother to the rule “good people don’t make other people feel bad,” because she was the adult and I was the child. It was OK for the adult to do whatever they felt needed to be done in order to correct the child. I already knew that I was going to have a hard time in life because I had so many undesirable traits so I should really be grateful for all the correction I could get. At least I wouldn’t drive people away by making them feel bad. I had to guess what I had done that was upsetting our host so much, but that was the least of my problems. From interactions like this, I would be left thinking that if someone said they were trying to help me, they could be as mean as they wanted. It is easy to see how this belief would prove unhelpful.

Perhaps there was another reason that the rule “good people do not make other people feel bad” did not apply to me. Perhaps I was such a bad person, that I, myself, was the exception. I could be made to feel bad without contradicting the rule because I was so bad it didn’t matter. This was a real possibility. Clearly, I was very bad. My mother had just spent fifteen minutes telling me so. Surely someone as loathsome as I could be made to feel bad with impunity. It is not difficult to see how this would cause adult me problems.

In the usual pattern, after the lecture went on for a while, my mother would say, “You make me so angry” and begin hitting me. Because we were at her friend’s house, she did not hit me, but confined herself to a semi-whispered tirade. With my adult brain, “you made me so angry that I hit you” is laughable, but when your full size parent says it, it is tough to argue with. Little Mary, of course your mother was able to control herself. She did not hit you when she deemed it inappropriate. She never hit you at her friend’s house, or while she was driving, or in church. She only “lost control” when there were no witnesses. Have you ever, Mary, become so overcome by emotions that you have hit someone else? You, loathsome as you are, can control yourself and your mother cannot? The problems with this statement became obvious to me when I was just a little older.

My mother’s tirade hinged on being convinced that another person can make you feel a certain way. This is a very complicated thing. It was obvious to me that other people could affect my emotions. My mother was making me feel bad (more accurately, sad, ashamed, remorseful, embarrassed, and unworthy) so it made sense to me that I had made her feel “bad,” too. However, as I aged into adolescence, my self awareness was growing. Soon, I would be making the discovery Marcus Aurelius did. Other people cannot control how you feel. Marcus says it in book 7: 

Let there fall externally what will on the parts which can feel the effects of this fall. For those parts which have felt will complain, if they choose. But I, unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so. 

I knew from my own experience, when someone in the room feels angry and yells at me, I felt afraid. When someone told me I was lazy, dishonest and unlovable, I felt bad. When I became a little older, I realized that it lasted for a brief moment and then often I was able to have a more reasoned response to the lecture. My response was consistent with what Viktor Frankl describes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

This was the beginning of developing my own Stoicism. I have previously written that the Stoic maxims can be like a foot shoved into a slamming door and can help me avoid giving assent to the initial feeling I have and spiralling into feeling “bad.” There is the stimulus (angry person in the room) and I cannot help the initial flash of feeling, but assenting to that feeling in the next moment is voluntary. If I can do something besides assent to it, I do not have to react to my emotion. I am in control of myself.

Figuring out that other people do not control my emotions was a huge freedom. That freedom didn’t make it hurt any less to be hit, but it did start to provide a way to look at “If you didn’t make me so angry, I wouldn’t hit you” differently. After this discovery, things in my family actually got worse as I experimented with saying, “It doesn’t really matter if I line the silverware up correctly” for the pleasure of watching my mother’s face contort in rage. I would think, “I did that. I can make her lose control of herself so easily. And she cannot make me lose control of myself even by grabbing my hair and using it as a handle to knock my head against the wall.”

The idea of controlling my response to my emotions provided me with a way to evaluate her statement that I made her angry and provided me with the start of a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance that I have described above. But it also provided me with more pain. Sadly, I could only control my mother in one direction. Try as I might (and I sure tried hard!) I could never find the switch that turned her into the generous, fun, loving mother that she could be every now and again.

And now thirty years after those lectures have ceased, I am still learning about the space between the impulse and the response. I know to notice what I am responding to when there is an angry person in the room. When things are going well, I will feel the anger, notice it, point it out to myself, remind myself that the person is angry, carefully check that I’m not responding to make their anger go away, remind myself that I am safe, and then attend to the situation at hand. This is easier to do professionally and more difficult to do with my family. Some days I’m successful and some days I’m not. I am still living out the legacy of believing other people control one’s emotions but I am better at logic than I used to be.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients. You can find her at her Medium Publication

“Odes to Aurelius” – The Winner

To mark the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, Modern Stoicism  challenged its followers to write a short tribute to the great Stoic Emperor in 250 words or less.

Today we are publishing the winner.

Meditations, Book 874 by Tobias Ruess

In my imagination  Marcus is sitting in his home in Italy, now 1900 years old, and still writing in his diary every now and then

Nineteen hundred years and still,
I try to discipline my will.
For sometimes I want things to be,
But nature seldom does agree.

I have to let go desire,
And – just like a blazing fire –
Use all that life puts in my way,
To grow – each and every day.

Many times, the world has changed,
Religions, countries rearranged.
And in the noise of time I find,
Stillness only in my mind.

Long gone is that fateful hour,
When I was at the height of power,
I always thought it to be same,
If country or if self to tame.

I´m old now and can barely move,
But even now I can improve,
The lives of those who are around,
With words, all timeless and profound.

The key is how do they perceive
the world around them – I believe.
Most Problems that they think to fear,
When looked at right, will disappear.

See Modern Stoicism’s You Tube channel Modern Stoicism – YouTube for audio versions of all the finalists (coming soon)

Odes To Marcus Competition – The Runners-Up – Entries 5-2

To mark the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, Modern Stoicism challenged readers to write a short tribute to the great Stoic Emperor in 250 words or less. The winning entry will be announced  during Modern Stoicism’s  online conference celebrating his birthday, held on Sunday April 26th.

All 14 finalists are being published here in the Stoicism Today blog in the days leading up to Marcus’s birthday on April 27th  and also on Modern Stoicism’s You Tube channel.

Today we have the penultimate installment – the entries placed from 5th place
to 2nd, determined by our panel of judges. As you will see below, there was a three-way tie for 3rd place. There is one entry – the winner – yet to appear!

Second PlaceMake Yourself Good by Meredith Alexander Kunz

“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live.”
–  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4:17

Remember that this moment
Is all you have: 
Each flying second
Your personal eternity
To make with it 
What you can
On this earth. 
Each flash of consciousness 
Your own, your true possession,
The source of your power 

To choose, and choose well,
In this temporary existence.

Focus on this alone and stay true.
That’s what you need to remember
To concentrate on what must be done.

God or atoms? No difference. 
Each of us must make our own way.
And that inner daimon
That guardian-spirit 
Inside you, inside us all,
Knows the path to virtue 
And the good. 
When we listen, 
We find happiness.

Some days, some years even,
We will be down and out, 
Dispossessed, beaten up
By the whims of the world,
Liable to gnash our teeth, 
Fill our brains with worry, 
Fear, desire, resentment.

But still: We hold the keys to mastery 
Of all that really matters.
It’s a lesson for the ages: 
“While you have life in you, 

While you can,
Make yourself good.”
Check yourself. 

Channel Marcus.
And if you’re veering off course into
Love of status, money, looks, things—
If you’re consumed 
By trepidation
Of what lies ahead, 
And dread of what
Surrounds you,
Stop—
And recall the philosopher-king 
to rule them all. “
He’ll set you right. 
And you’ll start the next day
Ready for the fight. 

#3 Stoic Rondeau by Tony Dawson

“To endure and prevail is a great good fortune,”
wrote Aurelius one midnight by moonlight
that shadowed his imperial solitude.
He shared his men’s hardships, ate their rough food,
fought by their sides in the Germanic sun. Found
only four things he believed we take part in:
Thoughts, Emotions, Inclinations, Aversions;
everything else is at the pleasure of God.
To endure and prevail is a great good fortune?
He endured to be sure, but prevail? As soon
as Imperial aegis was won
he died. Yet his philosophy has endured
the caprice of time and may still do us good.
If we play our parts as they are given,
to endure and prevail is a great good fortune.

#3 Dear Marcus, Love Ranjini by Ranjini George

21 November 2020

Dear Marcus,

The Ontario sky darkening outside my window, my Guan Yin lamp turned on, at an online Zen writing retreat, I read my first letter to you to a group of nine women.

Soon after, Anna, a woman I’ve never met, messages me privately.

My mother died in February—we read her Marcus Aurelius in the days before she died. He was the one she wanted.

Just as you did with your statuary of your beloved Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, I do with you.  

Bk. 2. 2: At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as befits an Indian-Canadian and a woman to fulfill the task at hand.

Bk. 5. 1: In the morning, when you find it hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Soon I will have a mug (with Marcus emblazoned on it) steaming with dark-roast coffee.’”

I ask my students to write their obituaries. Most find the topic unsavory, morbid, even terrifying. I exhort them with the words of Socrates: death the bogeyman. I recite your words: “Submit yourself to Clotho with good grace,” die with a “cheerful heart,” a ripe olive falling, blessing the earth and the tree that bore you. 

When my time comes, someone I love will read your words to me and say that you were the one I wanted.

Love and gratitude always,
Ranjini

#3 If… Only Commodus Had Remembered These Things by Marcus Aurelius (channeling Rudyard Kipling) from mail@whatisstoicism.com

If you remember to be strict with yourself
But tolerant with everyone else
If you remember to direct your thoughts to common good
And help your people like a leader should
If you remember not to seek revenge
But to be unlike him who did you harm
And further that there’s nothing to avenge
If the mind sounds not its own alarm

If you remember the power you hold
Not over people but your own mind
If you remember that courage is to be bold
In the face of trials and all hard times
If you remember that little is needed for a happy life,
That it’s all within your way of thinking,
And to dwell on the beauty of that life,
To watch the stars each night unblinking

If you remember it’s a privilege just to be alive
To think, to love, to hear and see
If you remember what’s good for the hive
Is forever good too for the bee
If you remember that the rest doesn’t matter,
Only that the right thing is always done
You’ll be remembered as a Good Emperor,
And-which is more-you’ll be a virtuous man, my son!

Odes To Marcus Competition – Finalist Entries 8-6

To mark the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, Modern Stoicism  challenged its followers to write a short tribute to the great Stoic Emperor in 250 words or less. The winning entry will be announced  during Modern Stoicism’s  online conference celebrating his birthday, held on Sunday April 26th.

The competition drew 50 entries, many of a high standard. As requested, by no means all were “odes” – the entries included blank verse, limericks, letters and haikus.

All 14 finalists will be published here in the Stoicism Today blog in the days leading up to Marcus’s birthday on April 27th  and also on Modern Stoicism’s You Tube channel.

Today we have the third installment – the entries placed from 8th place
to 6th, determined by our panel of judges.

#6 Aurelius Returns: Episode I, Not Always So  by Aaron Sherman

Can’t laugh? then weep.
Can’t accept it? then weep.
Can’t endure it? …
Oh, but, you can. Look:
he has
she has
they have.

Look:
he tried, she tried,–but, I, can’t.

Not always so. … Huh?

How you are, what you are, it won’t always be so, as it is now.
[a beat]
So where do we go from here?

Where courageous action, temperant interfacing, wise counsel, and just law live, so do I. So does every Stoic.

But, will that always be so, as it is now?–No. No, it won’t

And, that matters none. We will meet it just the same, as described,
a vow
daily accepted 
and practiced.
Daily defined and issued. 

Good luck,

#7 A Lantern in the Stern by Paul Wilson

Through doldrum, fog or sudden squall, the lantern’s glow illumines all
It casts defiant, knowing light, upon the hazards of the night
Past my vessel debris slips, the flotsam left by sunken ships
Whose foolish captains failed to learn, to heed the lantern in the stern
As their wreckage crests the waves, they sink into their liquid graves
Far below the shimmering sight, of the lantern’s guiding light
But I, still living, know my task, so in the heartening light I bask
And train my eyes to long discern, that trusty lantern in the stern
If my vessel’s sails should rend, I know how to make fast and mend
Repairs are made with ease in sight, of the lantern’s timeless light
My hold is full of heavenly treasure, earthly metrics cannot measure
This weightless cargo goes unseen, until it meets the lantern’s sheen
If creatures of the deep appear, to charge my heart with ancient fear
They’ll scatter at the surface sight, of that lantern burning bright
I’ve seen the ocean at its worst, what it can do to those accursed
And so for solace I will turn, towards that lantern in the stern
The horror of my storm-tossed hours, retreats before the lantern’s powers
My sailor’s wounds are fully healed, my place and purpose soon revealed
The lantern sets its final task, to burn away my crewman’s mask
So that I, at long last see, the captain of the ship…is me

The author added this  by way of explanation

“I’ve taken the view that Marcus might not welcome a celebration of himself, but he might appreciate some recognition of the enduring value of his philosophy. That perspective informed my approach to the poem. 

I don’t mention Marcus by name in it, but I do describe the presence of his wisdom in my life, as being like that of a lantern in the stern of a ship – casting a helpful light from behind to aid navigation, etc. And as Stoicism was born of a shipwreck this approach makes some sense!

#8 A Letter to Marcus Aurelius by Lina Távora

Dear Marcus Aurelius,

Since 2020, we are living in a Pandemic. In Brazil, we are still facing an increasing number of deaths – and other evils that come along, like misinformation and neglect for the common good. So I remembered you.

You would never say, “so what?” Amid the Plague, you stayed, you sold the Crown’s treasures, and you listened to the science available to you at the time. You followed your epithets and acted accordingly. You handled it, endured it, and contributed to the common good. You lived well and died well, as a true Stoic, even though you only considered yourself as a student. Maybe it is where there lies your strength, never seeing your philosophy’s journey as finished. 

Your losses were not few, but since you took the course of the Stoics, mentored by Rusticus, guided by the lessons of Epictetus, you embraced this philosophy and transformed the difficulties in apprenticeship. Maybe you always had it in you, as Antoninus saw. And you perfected it. 

You believed that justice was the source of the other virtues, and your actions confirmed this statement. Whether as a ruler, whether facing the epidemic or facing your own end, your character is your greatest legacy. 

This is what is expected of sages, philosophers, citizens, and a government. On your birthday, we remember by your story that we must act with empathy for the people, the pain, and the losses that surround us.

Farewell.

Odes To Marcus Competition – More Finalists – Entries 11-9

To mark the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, Modern Stoicism challenged readers to write a short tribute to the great Stoic Emperor in 250 words or less. The winning entry will be announced  during Modern Stoicism’s  online conference celebrating his birthday, held on Sunday April 26th.

The competition drew 50 entries, many of a high standard. As requested, by no means all were “odes” – the entries included blank verse, limericks, letters and haikus.

All 14 finalists will be published here in the Stoicism Today blog in these days leading up to Marcus’s birthday on April 27th  and also on Modern Stoicism’s You Tube channel.

Today we have the second installment of finalists – the entries ranked from 11th place to 9th, determined by our panel of judges.

#9 Mindful Fire by Thomas Savino

I will end badly I know 
Beaten by illness or my own body or a foe
I’m no Greek hero and I’ve lived long enough to see the end of better men 
I know this now, as I stand unbeaten and unbowed 
And take mental note that “I” am not now my victory nor will I then be my defeat 
I am more I am virtue made manifest if I but embrace the knowledge of it 
So bring smiling victory or snarling defeat to me dressed in silk or rags  
The latest fashions interest me little 
There is an eternally blazing fire right here in my chest that I must mindfully husband  
Now as I hope to then  
The easy one being but mere training for the hard one just there on the horizon

 

#10 Ode For Marcus Aurelius by Alison McCone

Mind my own business instead of worrying about that of others
Attend to myself so I can be there to tend for other
Reason with my inner daimon so I can be rational with others
Cherish my freedom whilst ensuring I grant it to others
Understand I have many faults and accept so do others
Show my love for everyone but never demand it from others

Accept I’m only human and I’ll often screw up on all of the above
Understand many around me may find Stoicism a bit weird
Realize the world is not perfect and I can’t change it overnight
Enjoy dancing, singing, laughing, having fun and being silly
Lie when necessary to protect someone from suffering
Impossible is just a word but possibility is a choice
Upheaval is a normal part of life and I can’t avoid it
Smile, socialize and see the beauty and safety all around you

#11 Zooming with Marcus by Clare Flynn

When Zoom meetings get in a stew, 
I consider “What would Marcus do?”, 
He’d take a deep breath, 
Meditate on death, 
And offer a stoical view. 

For a while I’ll be tolerant and amiable, 
Just like Marcus, my virtue unshakable,  
But when colleagues drone on,  
Or the wifi has gone,  
Ataraxia seems unobtainable! 

Odes To Marcus Competition – The Finalists – Entries 14-12

To mark the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, Modern Stoicism  challenged its followers to write a short tribute to the great Stoic Emperor in 250 words or less. The winning entry will be announced  during Modern Stoicism’s  online conference celebrating his birthday, held on Sunday April 26th.

The competition drew 50 entries, many of a high standard. As requested, by no means all were “odes” – the entries included blank verse, limericks, letters and haikus.

All 14 finalists will be published here in the Stoicism Today blog in the days leading up to Marcus’s birthday on April 27th  and also on Modern Stoicism’s You Tube channel.

Today we have the first installment – the entries placed from 12th place
to 14th, determined by our panel of judges.

#12  wort or word anniversary – defy it from the start – is otium and yet by Walter Aigner 

word some of them make it like a neg_otium where it is
maybe man’s glassy essence or an in-between …. open toward an infi
night early in the morning between three and five while
simultaneously

reaching toward the nothing that is perhaps your poetic work invites
responses even after nineteen hundred years – reveals the human condition
as if in-between and dialogical even at the limits of language – this is perhaps

where footnotes maintain this were unfinished like in book twelve – where you ex
plore otium that resists mastery and instead requires or invites to the to-and-fro m
ovement of the world and of ourselves – some will celebrate your disappearance

wort or word or wait a moment defy the lingua franca for something in between
languages writing beyond what you know already – and yet reopened in writing
forty times and more without academic fencing between otium and

serious play – almost all their comments and books are within too
big clothes – systems – books – kind of remember forget reading books –
not three to five am not in a villa or a tent but in home offices in a virtual

meeting on a kind of Sunday – modern science tells us there is often no correlation between
more information and accuracy object trouvés and your metaphors
like leaves the wind scatters on the ground – like the race of man often unrecognised Homer

#13 With Thanks by Oliver Owen

Thanks, gentle courage,
With care, attention, and strength,
Find humble Virtue.

#14 Clear Sky or Storm by Traci Deman

From this seat I see
all manner of beauty
and of vulgarity.

Dare I wonder how falls Zeus’ eye,
from above, on this dye?

Nay. To admit my lot
and for that gaze opt not…

My heading true:
simply, virtue.

Being Better: The Spartans and Stoics Offer So Much More than Self-Help by Kai Whiting

At least on some level, co-authoring my recent book “Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In” was a journey into the hearts and minds of the great men and women, who pointed out the path to eudaimonia (a state that Zeno referred to as the “good life” or “the life worthy of being lived”) and told us that we could obtain it through our work alone. One of the most powerful Stoics that I became acquainted with, and whose story Leo and I tell (in Chapter 7) is that of the Spartan Queen Agiatis[1]. She leant on Stoic ideas to help her husband King Kleomenes III bring down an oligarchical regime that had crushed Sparta’s warrior spirit. Her example speaks to me for three reasons:

  1. It confirms to me that Stoicism isn’t only about the self: While Stoicism is profoundly about sculpting your own character, the Stoic-influenced Spartan land and socioeconomic reforms prove that the philosophy can be used for the common good. It also shows me that we can successfully apply Stoicism at the community level and assures me that Stoicism has something to say about environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, which we normally don’t consider to be under our control. I am convinced that if the Spartans could use Stoicism to improve their society, then so can we.
  2. Sparta was so much more than toughness and austerity: Writing Being Better allowed me to dispel the myths of a Spartan as a single-minded killing machine. It taught me how Kleomenes, with help from his wife and the Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, reformed the educational system, established paths to citizenship for foreigners, and tirelessly advocated for justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom (at least how they conceived of these virtues).   Even in their failures, the Spartan Stoics showed me that reason and justice were more natural to humankind than mere slaughtering in warfare.  It is interesting to me how the mass media creations of Sparta, though often entertaining, says more about the vices of contemporary society than it does about ancient Sparta!
  3. Female Stoics were not silent: If you listen carefully, female Stoics have a voice and they powerfully remind us that role models come in all shapes and sizes, whether they label themselves as Stoics or not. This inspired me to continue playing my part in making the contemporary Stoic community as cohesive and coherent as possible. In particular, it made me think about how we all need to lean into reason and put aside the labels we too often used to define and separate ourselves from others.

 In some respects, Being Better was a very difficult book to write, not least because it rebels against its categorisation as a “self-help” book. This is because it fundamentally  questions the meaning behind, and validity of, the self-help space – at least how it’s conventionally understood. The irony is not lost on me. In fact, if Being Better was a person, I think it would be the troublemaker who is precariously close to being thrown out of the group for biting the hand that feeds it. There would certainly be some truth in this accusation. Without a shadow of a doubt, Being Better owes its existence to the half-truths (and some damn right lies) that litter the self-help space and which, for the most part, constitute the tried and tested formula of self-help success.

In the remainder of this article, I would like to show, at least to some extent, where and why Being Better, breaks the “self-help” mould and challenges Stoic practitioners, including myself, to grapple with what is required to create and belong to a world worth living in.

There Are No Universal Solutions in Stoicism

Many self-help books (not necessarily Stoic ones) are written by people who believe that the secret  to your “success”  (not just theirs) is their 10-step plan, which if followed to the letter will guarantee the life you dream of. However, this view of reality couldn’t be further from Stoicism, which holds that the ability to live a life worthy of being lived (the life the ancient Stoics said we should be dreaming of) is a function of four roles.

As Leo and I discuss in Being Better, only one of these, the role of being a rational human being, is universal to everyone. The second role is shaped by our individual nature. This includes our likes, dislikes, personality traits, and odd quirks. The third is a product of our personal circumstances, which include where we were born, where we now live, whether we have children or elderly parents, and how much money or social influence we have. The fourth relates to the professional path we wish to take in life and includes our career choices: the job that we are trained to do, and the corresponding knowledge that we acquired while doing it.

All four roles combine to determine our path to eudaimonia. Although we may share some steps with others, the path we carve (the choices we make and actions or inactions we undertake) is ultimately our own. It is unique to us because it is created by the way in which we actively chose to shape our character, in light of our moral obligations, responsibilities and the degree of freedom we have to walk upon the terrain (our circumstances) while tied to the metaphorical Stoic cart. As Leonidas Konstantakos and I state in Chapter 5:

Our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to save lives if we happen to be a motor mechanic will be different from that of a trained doctor. Likewise, our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to enact legal change will be different for those who are qualified lawyers or judges. However, a Stoic mechanic is expected to obtain the necessary wisdom that enables them to fix cars and to treat people justly at the same time, as this will have an impact on their own well-being and the well-being of others.

None of what I have said so far is remotely contentious or hard to understand. Both the Stoics and common-sense tells that no two people are exactly alike and that, therefore, we get different results when we do the exact same thing. To use a mundane, and rather silly, example, I am 5ft 5 inches, Leo is 6ft. If “success” is grabbing toilet roll off the top shelf in a supermarket, and it is to be achieved by following Leo’s instructions to (1) stand in the correct place and (2) reach my arms up in the air and (3) grab it, then I will fail if the shelf is higher up than I can physically reach. No amount of self-belief will result in my adult limbs growing. It may be a stupid example, but, in essence, it’s no different to all sorts of claims that too many self-help authors make. This is why Leo and I wrote in Chapter 1:

We aren’t privy to your personal circumstances. We don’t know the nature of the problems you are trying to solve. We cannot guess how you and those around you would react to any of the many possible options available to you. Even if we did know you well and tried to “put ourselves in your shoes,” what we would actually be doing is considering your situation from our point of view. In other words, we would be putting our feet into your shoes rather than considering how your shoes fit your feet! [2]

Ironically, writing the above paragraph flies in the face of conventional non-Stoic self-help wisdom, even though it is effectively saying “we are not going to give you answers precisely because we want you to think it through and help yourself”. In other words, Leo and I wrote Being Better in a way that (we hope) gets you to ask yourself better questions, ask yourself questions that you might never have thought about previously and, ultimately, ask yourself how you can be a better person. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the quality of my life has been marked by the quality of my questions.

For me personally, Being Better empowered me to ask extremely difficult questions – ones we typically shy away from, even in the contemporary Stoic community! For example, the book caused me to consider if I truly believed the Stoic claim that slavery is an “indifferent”, i.e. neither a virtue or vice. It made me ask myself whether, and to what extent, Stoicism can be used to fight climate breakdown, extreme poverty and religious/political intolerance.

I am happy to report that, if anything, Being Better convinced me that Stoicism is a powerful tool that goes way beyond our (hopefully) calmer self and quotidian matters.

Stoic Self-Help Isn’t About Me, Myself and I

When I first came across Stoicism, and as I wrote for the Daily Stoic, I saw a philosophy that serves humanity by helping individuals to acknowledge and work towards cosmopolitanism, as captured by Hierocles Circles of Concern. These circles depict the Stoic belief that we all belong to one universal community bound by reason (logos).The circles also visually portray the Stoic belief that a reasonable person’s relationship with others starts with the circle of the “self” and expands into “family,” “friends,” “community,” and “all humanity”, and, in my opinion, the “Earth”.

Figure 1. A contemporary version of Hierocles’ circles of concerns, first established in Whiting et al (2018) [3]

These circles allow us to recognise ourselves in all of humanity and all of humanity in ourselves. It leads to an understanding that Stoicism is more about collective obligations, responsibilities and civic duty than an individual’s rights, a sentiment which is nicely captured by Marcus Aurelius when he says:

What brings no benefit to the hive brings no benefit to the bee

Meditations 6.54

The aforementioned phrase by Aurelius is well-known in the contemporary Stoic community. It is impossible to disagree with it and is the kind of sentence I would expect to find on a Silicon Valley CEO’s fridge, as much as I would anticipate seeing it on an eco-feminist Marxist’s backpack. The problem is that superficial sentiments and pithy quotes can equally support the idea of “success” as becoming a more effective entrepreneur (in your main job or side hustle), who earns considerable money and “crushes it” for the benefit of the customer and shareholder bees. However, such an approach to success contrasts with Stoic ethics, particularly the theological aspects. Leo and I highlight this in Being Better, when we discuss the importance of considering the wellbeing of all things that share the logos with us (this includes animals, plants and rocks).

 Being Better also alludes to the dangers of self-help authors creating the (false) impression that humanity is destined to live in a dog-eat-dog world or is subject to a zero-sum game that only fools think we can escape.[4] To me, the fool is the person who values competition over collaboration only to lose out on the benefits that can be obtained when we chose to work towards for the common good – something that Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, makes beautifully clear when the protagonist highlights the consequences of translating the word “tool” as “weapon”.  

Having written Being Better, I would now say that I am more acutely aware as to how quickly false notions of competition can become a weapon with which to attack the shield of cosmopolitanism. For evidence of this, consider how often business self-help books use the terms “crushing it” or “killing it” to, somewhat ironically,  describe someone who is doing something well. How precisely can crushing, killing or annihilating the competition bring us closer to virtue and eudaimonia? It doesn’t surprise me that these kinds of self-help books fail to mention justice or wisdom and restrict self-control and courage to having enough “self-control” or “courage” to “follow your passion” (not exactly a Stoic message). It also doesn’t help people if authors glorify the making of sacrifices for the sake of a more pleasurable or wealthier (rather than virtuous) existence.

Writing Being Better convinced me more than ever to take a stand against the idea that a world worth living is one where we should all prioritise how we feel over a sense of rational thought processing, duty and civic responsibility. To truly live Marcus Aurelius’ warning, we have to embody it in our day-to-day decisions such as what we eat, what we buy and what we chose to tolerate. Being Better also made me consider just how much we all invest in convincing ourselves that we can do nothing because X or Y is beyond our control. Wouldn’t we all be better Stoics if we invested in our agency so that we could gain control?  In this respect, I think there are definitely times that we all get a little too complacent and comfortable in our Epicurean garden!

Maybe, Stoicism’s Not for Everyone?

I have heard a great many contemporary Stoic practitioners and scholars say that Stoicism really isn’t for everyone. However, I don’t think I quite understood where they were coming from until after I had finished writing Being Better. While Stoicism certainly doesn’t call us to proselytise or to preach to anyone, I would be lying if I said didn’t want more Stoic practitioners in the world, even though I know that the size of the contemporary Stoic community is well beyond my control!

I think I thought that all people who sincerely came into contact with Stoicism would just ease their way into the practice. I thought that if they understood the fundamentals, they would be prepared to accept that it is a philosophy of extremes practiced in a world of multiple shades of grey. I am no longer sure that’s the case. Quite frankly, a lot of people do want a tick box guide sheet and, unfortunately for them, that’s just not Stoicism!

Stoic philosophy has no tick boxes and makes only one axiomatic claim: virtue is the only good and vice the only bad. Despite this, I find that some people may not wish to accept that what is a virtuous thing for me to do may not be a virtuous thing for them to do, because in Stoicism the right thing to do is dependent on the reason behind it. In turn, those reasons are a product of who you are and where you are at that specific moment in time. This is simply an understanding of the world that some people do not willingly accept because it smells of moral relativism[5].

However, in line with what I explained above, both a medical doctor and an academic doctor (PhD), like myself, who come across a dying person are morally obligated to do everything in their power to assist them. However, my obligation may end with a simple phone call, whereas the doctor might have to involve themselves in a range of complex processes (virtuous acts) that I couldn’t hope to understand.

Personally, I remain convinced that the path to eudaimonia is open up to all adults that are capable of reason and that Stoicism is one path that allows us to obtain it.  I do believe that one of my obligations, at least for the moment, is to do my very best to ensure that I communicate the nature of Stoicism. This requires me to unpack what it really means for something to be an indifferent and to have as many Socratic discussions with contemporary Stoics as possible so we can together distinguish the superficial from the fundamentally important. To my mind, this is the first step on the road to being better and a world worth living in.

Acknowledgement: Kai would like to thank James Daltrey for his formulation of the footnote on Stoicism and moral relativism.

[1] We are largely indebted to Plutarch’s Lives of Agis and Kleomenes and Andrew Erskine’s The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action for the telling of the stories that connects Stoicism and Sparta.

[2] This mirrors Epictetus’s lesson in Discourses 1.1: Discourses 1.1): “If you’re writing to a friend, grammar will tell you what letters you ought to choose, but as to whether or not you ought to write to your friend, grammar won’t tell you that.

[3] Originally proposed in Whiting, K., Konstantakos, L., Carrasco, A., & Carmona, L. G. (2018). Sustainable development, wellbeing and material consumption: A Stoic perspective. Sustainability, 10(2), 474. Open access here: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474

[4] Darwin did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”, nor should it be taken to mean the strongest or most aggressive.  It can equally mean the cleverest or most collaborative. For a brief accessible discussion, see: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13671-evolution-myths-survival-of-the-fittest-justifies-everyone-for-themselves/

[5] Stoicism does not invite moral relativism because it holds that being a rational social animal is a normative condition. This necessarily entails coherent reasoning and mutual aid, which is cashed out in terms of roles and positive responsibilities. As such the private internal understandings of any individual, or all actual or possible social customs within any specific culture are not all equally valid. They need to be argued for and justified in the light of the real-world relations between real human animals in the real natural world. Stoicism does not invite moral relativity because it holds that truth comes from universal reason, which is external to humans and not subject or a product of a specific culture or the belief of a single human individual

Kai Whiting is the co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

Get In On The Stoic Fellowship’s Month of Service!

The worldwide Stoic Fellowship and its member local Stoas are engaged in a Month of Service. They would like to invite everyone to participate in the One Thousand Stoics Challenge

How do you get involved, you ask? By engaging in an act of service or kindness this month and sharing the action with the community via this simple Google form.

The goal is to have 1000 actions performed in the month of April. That leaves 15 days. You can read much more about it, and find resources by clicking here.