Are Virtuous People Happy? Why The Ancients’ Views Are Still Sensible by Rafael R Pereira

We know that the relationship between morality and happiness constitutes a major difference between ancient and modern moral theories. It seems evident to many of us that these orders of consideration are distinctive: a person can be unhappy by acting morally. However, a basic premise of eudaimonist ethics involves the thesis that the virtues make us happy, constitutively or instrumentally. This essay will discuss how this view can still make sense. To this end, we will attempt to apprehend eudaimonia first from the standpoint of considerations about who we are, our identity or true nature, and second from the way we relate to the world. As we will observe, this second aspect is related to the ancient concept of fortune or tuké.

Ancient authors, particularly Aristotle and the Stoics, understood eudaimonia as the best possible life for the specific kind of creatures humanity represents. We are fundamentally rational agents; hence, the good life is one in which we can best develop and exercise our rational capacities. The conception of eudaimonia, therefore, connects the good life to considerations of identity and interprets it teleologically: what we really are is not the inception; it is a point of arrival, something we must strive to become (Robertson 2013: 31).

It makes perfect sense within this conceptual framework to cognize that our lives will be better if we are virtuous because, in precise terms, virtues entail the updating of our rational capacities. The good life is one in which we flourish as rational agents, becoming excellent human beings. Evidently, this inference is vastly different from the way we comprehend happiness in modernity: as a pleasant emotional state or a subjective sense of well-being. The incongruity of the thesis that virtues contribute to happiness appears attributable, therefore, to conceptual confusion or to a translation error if we so prefer. The definition posited by the ancient philosophersis simply not what we now signify by the term happiness.

I will try to demonstrate in this essay that it is still reasonable for us to believe that virtuous people are happier. Ancient and modern views are not so divergent after all. The first important point to note is that both eudaimonia and modern happiness encompass certain objective and subjective elements. This thesis is defended by Richard Kraut in his paper “Two Conceptions of Happiness”. According to Kraut, both ancients and moderns understand happiness as a positive attitude toward living when such a life satisfies certain standards that are considered to be good. In other words, happiness is vested in a life that embodies something valued by the individual. The ancient and modern conceptions are different merely in their emphasis. Such values ​​are independent of our individual preferences in the former notion: we should desire them. In the modern version of the idea, the individual is free to choose a personal tenet of a good life. In both cases, our lives must meet certain standards, objective in eudaimonistic conceptions and subjective in modern terms (Kraut 1979: 168).

 That eudaimonia contains subjective elements can be illustrated by recalling Aristotle’s belief that a virtuous person takes pleasure in acting virtuously (NE 1099a15). That the modern conception of a good life incorporates objective elements can be elucidated by the known example of a woman who believes she has a perfect family and then discovers her husband has another family elsewhere. In this instance, the woman’s life is not good according to the pattern she has set for herself. Thus, happiness cannot solely be subjectively understood in modernity. If it could, we would have to maintain that the woman led a happy life even though she was deceived.

We can thus say that the eudaimonia of the ancients is a type of moderate objectivism, whereas modern happiness represents moderate subjectivism. If the two conceptions are not so different, as Kraut maintains, then the thesis that virtue is a constitutive element of happiness must still somehow be reasonable. This essay focuses on fortune or tuché, a concept crucial to eudaimonist conceptions, to demonstrate this point.

Both Aristotle and the Stoics sought to distance themselves from the position commonly associated with Solon, who stated in a famous passage by Herodotus that fortune was the principal component of eudaimonia, and that is why a person’s happiness could only be asserted after death (Herodotus, H. I-32). Aristotle and the Stoics rejected this view, possibly because they thought that a life subjected to tuché would be akin to the existence of leaves in the wind and would not do justice to our nature as rational agents. In opposition, both the Stoics and Aristotle postulated a notion that would minimize the effects of fortune or even eliminate them altogether, as will be discussed later in the paper. Their strategy was to make what we do, and not what happens to us, the key element of a good life. Eudaimonia, in fact, is often described as a kind of activity rather than as a state. Aristotle illustrated this point by defining eudaimonia as the “activity (energeia) of the soul according to virtue” (NE 1098a-17). Explaining the stoic position, Julia Annas comments that our telos is not happiness; rather, it is “to be happy.” Hence, it is something we do, not a state of affairs (Annas 1993: 396; Cf. Didymus, 77.16–27). Understood in this manner, happiness becomes something fundamentally dependent on ourselves and cannot be easily taken away from us. Fortune’s role is thus minimized.

 In this sense, our flourishing as rational agents transforms the way we relate to the world. Ancient philosophers generally believed, as do many moderns, that our nature incorporates two dimensions: one active, associated with reason; another passive, associated with emotions or pathé. We are simultaneously agents and subjects of experiences. This point can be illustrated by the etymology of pathos, which derives from the Greek verb páskho (to suffer, to be affected by). The same occurs with the terms afeto in Portuguese and “affection” in English, derived from affectus, the participle of the Latin verb afficio, “to affect.” Thus, we are subjects of experiences, in large part through our emotions. Passions are how the world affects us, and we consequently relate to the world in two ways: we act on it through reason, and we are affected by it through our passions.

 We must learn to handle the world in a more rational way to become good rational agents, which entails becoming more active and less passive. However, our condition as subjects of experiences is not eliminated in the process. We will always be affected by fortune, but this dimension can also be rationalized. It has been noted that the world works on us through our passions. Both Aristotle and the Stoics distinguished between irrational and rational emotions, although they disagreed on their significations. We all have emotional reactions that could be considered irrational, for instance, a fear of cockroaches, anger at the television remote control, or an affinity toward people who treat us badly. There are situations, however, in which our emotional reactions can be rationally justified. This rationalization is possible because, unlike the moderns, the ancients conceived of emotions in a cognitive manner, associating or identifying feelings with beliefs about values ​​or about reality (Nussbaum, 369–72). We can thus conform to reason the ways in which the world affects us.

 Aristotle and the Stoics, however, disagreed on how this validation was accomplished. Aristotle defended a position that could be labeled the stance of harmonization, in which affections must be educated to listen (akouo) to reason. The Stoics, on the other hand, considered emotions linked to false value judgments (pathé) as fundamentally different from rational emotions (eupatheiai). The false adjudications thus disappear during the acquisition of the virtues. This divergence between the two ancient schools in the manner in which our affective existence should be rationalized can cause dissimilarities about the emotions that may be considered rational. In the Aristotelian view, certain emotions such as envy are never rational (NE 1107a11), but there may be good reasons to feel anger, fear, or sadness. In the Stoical conception, such emotions are always irrational (unless they are treated as proto-passions or involuntary physiological reactions occurring before the value judgment that generates the passions; Cf. Seneca: Ep. 99.15–6).

Stoicism may be apprehended as the radicalization of certain Aristotelian premises. As observed above, both positions consider virtue as the main component of a good life and minimize the role of fortune. Aristotle, however, thought that the latter could not be completely eliminated: virtue is necessary for eudaimonia and it is not possible to be happy without it, but it is not sufficient in itself. External and bodily goods such as health and wealth also contribute, albeit in a secondary role, to happiness (NE 1099a32). The Stoics, on the other hand, held that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. There are several ways to understand this divergence. I prefer Irwin’s elucidation: the thesis of necessity implied the premise of sufficiency for the Stoics; thus, the Aristotelian position is inconsistent (Irwin 1986: 213). When we recognize that virtue is a different type of value that is incommensurable with the worth of other goods, as implied in the thesis that virtue is a pre-condition of happiness, we cannot avoid the rationale that it also becomes the only relevant good for eudaimonia. If we allow virtue to mix with other types of values for the composition of a good life, there is no way to guarantee that it will always prevail in cases of conflict. Inevitably, some amount of external goods will become more important for happiness than virtue. Thus, the passive facet of our nature, our condition as agents of experiences, will outweigh our active dimension as rational agents. The Stoics would thus maintain the necessity of making virtue the only component of a good life to guarantee the special status of virtue as a value incommensurable with other goods. Obviously, our condition as subjects of experiences is not eliminated; that would be impossible. The world continues to act on us, but this aspect is irrelevant in itself for a good life, according to the Stoics. Happiness is not primarily vested in what we do and less consigned in what happens to us, as Aristotle claims. It consists only in what we do.

We are now in a better position to understand the continuing validity of the view that virtuous people are happy. This point is sometimes based, as in Kraut’s paper, on Aristotle’s position that acting virtuously is pleasurable. However, Aristotle’s stance is not an efficacious means of apprehending the relationship between virtue and happiness. First, it appears to work best on hedonistic conceptions, and Aristotle was not himself a hedonist. Second, as was common in the ancient world (including the Stoics), this thesis is based on an analogy between moral deliberation and the model of skills or technai, and that is not how happiness is usually understood today. However, as contended in this essay, the relationship between virtue and happiness is also related to the role discharged by fortune in a good life, and this method is more promising as a means of making the virtue-happiness relationship intelligible for contemporary views. This essay attempts this task based on an association between suffering and what we will call “psychic vulnerability”.

 It is easily contemplated that relating to the world more rationally would make us less psychologically vulnerable to events. Ancient doctrines have already made this point, which is particularly clearly enunciated by the Stoics, who emphasize the peace of mind or the tranquility (ataraxia) of virtuous people in handling misfortunes. We place ourselves in a fragile position when we are passive; we become more subject to suffering and find it difficult to cope with circumstances. Being rational and active makes us mentally and emotionally stronger. This aspect forms the base of the recent congruence posited between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) by authors such as Donald Robertson (Robertson 2010). This approximation is possible because CBT shares the ancient cognitivist view of emotions. Much of our psychic suffering results from emotions generated by false beliefs. Our flourishing as rational agents makes us mentally and emotionally healthier and better equipped to deal with the setbacks in our lives.

Therefore, the thesis that virtuous people are happy is still sensible. The virtuous are less prone to the suffering caused by psychic vulnerability.As Kraut elucidated, this connection is possible because eudaimonia and what we identify as happiness are not so different after all. Both have subjective and objective components. Thus far, we have discussed the subjective facet of ancient conceptions such as the Stoic notion of ataraxia, but the objectivity contained in modern happiness is also a crucial point. It enables us to explain, for instance, why a person whose state of tranquility was achieved through drugs or medication would not be considered to be happy: the usage of medications compromises our rational agency and the way we connect to the world. The notion of ​​flourishing, the view that happiness is comprised of a life that is apt and good for the type of creature we represent, continues to make sense in modernity, albeit in a weakened version of the robustness the rationale offered to the ancient philosophers.

Nevertheless, it is important to attend to the limits of this approximation. As previously noted, a difference in emphasis certainly prevails between the modern and ancient viewpoints. This distinction should not be underestimated. It has been iterated above that eudaimonistic conceptionsare grounded in moderate objectivism, whereas modern happiness is founded on moderate subjectivism. To ascertain the relevance of this divergence, we may reflect that a type of moral realism founds the eudaimonia of the ancients: objective and true goods exist independently of our personal preferences; these must be incorporated into our existence if we want our lives to be worthy. The subjective element of these conceptiosn is denoted by the fact that we must be educated to appreciate such values (Aristotle NE 1104b10-7). In this essay we postulate that freedom (eleuteria, libertas) is the most important of these goods, both for Aristotle and the Stoics. The preservation of our integrity as rational agents is what really matters to our existence. To be passive is to be controlled by external events and to become a slave to fortune. The Stoics highlighted this issue clearly (Seneca Ep. 66.14-7, 92.2; Epictetus Disc. I-25.23; III-20.8; III-24.60; IV-1.36), as did Aristotle, for whom autarkes was the most important component of eudaimonia, even though it was not the only one. If the good life is vested in our flourishing as rational agents, it is perfectly comprehensible that freedom in the sense of a kind of autonomy or rational integrity is the central component. The subjective dimension of these conceptions thus occupies a subordinate place. Just as the pleasure of virtuous actions is a secondary feature of Aristotle’s non-hedonistic ethics, the stoic perspective of ataraxia must be interpreted as the state of mind of the free person. Freedom is the crucial value.

 If taken seriously, the recent revival of eudaimonist conceptions, particularly Stoicism, should not merely be construed as a means toward more happiness in the modern sense. Eudaimonia and modern happiness are different. The point of being rational cannot be reduced to a matter of becoming resilient or to the more tranquil conduct of our lives. The resumption of ancient notions should rather be viewed as a mandate to modify our conception of happiness. It should then lead to a more refined reflection on the definition of a good life and result in the particular contemplation of the place of freedom and integrity in such an existence. However, such reflection is facilitated once we understand that the distance between the ancient and modern notions of happiness is not so big. The stance that virtuous people are happy remains current and intelligible.


  • Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Aristotle. 1984a. “Nicomachean Ethics” (NE). In The Complete Works of Aristotle, volume 2, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, 1729–1867. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Didymus, Arius. 1999. Epitome of Stoic Ethics. Edited and translated by Arthur J. Pomeroy. Atlanta-GA: Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Epictetus. 1956. The Discourses (Disc). Translated by W. A. Oldfather. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Herodotus. 1987. The History (H). Translated by David Grene. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Irwin, Terence. 1986. “Stoic and Aristotelian Conceptions of Happiness.” In Schofield, Malcolm. & Striker, Gisela. The Norms of Nature: Studies in Hellenistic Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kraut, Richard. 1979. “Two Conceptions of Happiness.” In: The Philosophical Review, 88, no 2.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Robertson, Donald. 2013. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Soughton.
  • Robertson, Donald. 2010. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). London: Karnac Books ltda.
  • Seneca. 1969. Letters from a Stoic (Ep). Translated by Robin Campbell. London: Penguin Books.

Rafael Rodrigues Pereira is a philosophy professor at the Federal University of Goias (Ufg), Brazil. He has published many papers about Stoicism and contemporary virtue ethics. He is also a member of the GT Epictetus in Brazil with Aldo Dinucci, a group related to the National Association of Philosophy Students (Anpof), and dedicated to studies about Stoicism.

This article was produced with the support of the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (Cnpq), Brazil.

Stoic Wisdom: Moral Injury and Stoic Resilience by Nancy Sherman

This essay is drawn from Nancy Sherman, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (2021) Now available in hardback, electronic, and audio formats at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Greco-Roman Stoicism is a natural fit for the military. Yet it’s in tension with what many experts now acknowledge as a pervasive psychological fact of war and after war. And that is moral injury. The leading research and clinical mental health professionals working on war-related moral injury define it as “a syndrome of shame, self-handicapping, anger, and demoralization that occurs when deeply held beliefs and expectations about moral and ethical conduct are transgressed.”[i]  Transgressions can arise from the point of view of the agent (as perpetrator), from the behavior of others (as victim), or by being close-up witnesses, say as immersed war journalist or photographer.

Consider Toronto Star photojournalist Paul Watson who was in Somalia in 1993 and took the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland —a bloodied corpse, bound, and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by the Somali rebels. As Watson aimed his camera, what he is sure he heard Cleveland whisper was: “If you do this, I’ll own you forever.”[ii] The photo ended up being instrumental in the pull out of American forces from Somalia under President Clinton. But the guilt of having taken the photo tormented Watson for decades. It was as if Watson’s camera shot was one of the shots that killed Cleveland.                            

Moral injury is a trauma response to a severe moral conflict or challenge. It’s related to post-traumatic stress (PTS) with overlapping symptoms, yet distinct from it in that moral threat, and not overwhelming life threat, is the trigger. The potentially injurious experiences have to do with breaches of morality, not breaches of safety. The emotions that manifest moral injury can burrow deep, like guilt, shame, resentment, and a sense of betraying and being betrayed. They are part of a broader palette of emotions that philosophers call “reactive attitudes”. They are testaments to the fact that we hold ourselves and others to account.

Service members wield the most lethal of weapons in high-stakes situations. Those who are conscientious wrestle with what they do and what they leave undone and what they leave behind. While moral injury may be especially traumatic in the military, it also exists in civilian life, even when lethal weapons aren’t wielded. There are lessons to be learned for everyone in how Stoicism “makes peace” with moral injury.

Take this case of a naval aviator, recounted by New York Times correspondent, C.J. Chivers in his book The Fighters.  Layne McDowell was meant for a cockpit. He had wanted to fly since junior high, and the Naval Academy, unlike the Air Force, took a gamble on a guy that had just had a knee injury. He graduated in 1995 with a 3.84 GPA and soon discovered he also had the physiology to withstand 9-G’s over time in the “spin and puke” centrifuge. He could physically endure and had made peace with willful self-defensive killing of enemy combatants in what he took to be “just war” ways. But one event early in his career unhinged his sense of moral calm. It was a midday strike on a radio-relay site in northern Kosovo in May 1999. Intelligence imagery was grainy. In order not to alert Serbian forces, he had to go south of the target and make a quick turn back. Aircrews now had less time to locate and verify the target. Serbian Air Defense opened up fire and that took McDowell’s attention away from the targeting screen.         

“I felt good about the release. Then clouds obscured the target until about 13 seconds to impact. At that time I began having doubts about the target. It didn’t look right, but in those 13 seconds, I didn’t say anything, and we took out what we were targeting with 2 GBU [guided bomb unit]-12’s.”

Dread started to mount. Back on the carrier, McDowell looked at the strike footage on a big screen. The bomb had struck not the target but a carport next to a house. McDowell saw signs of civilian occupation, and unmistakably, four bikes, two of which were child-sized.

There were never any legal proceedings or Navy follow-up to determine if and who and how many civilians and children may have been killed in the strike. But he carried the moral burden in a repetitive intrusive dream in which he did his own after-incident investigation. The dream replayed again before he deployed to Iraq in 2005. The building he bombed was somehow still standing but there was thick dust everywhere, insulation and wires dangling, boards littered all over the ground. The smoke was thick and it was hard to make out who, at all, was in the structure. He aches to turn back the clock, to be given time to steer the bomb to an empty field. But he can’t. In the structure, he definitely saw a small boy huddled in the corner, coated in dust, severely injured but still breathing. He knew the face. It was McDowell’s own son, Landon. “He lifted the boy to his chest, tightly for a hug, cupping his hand behind the child’s little head, to hold it. The back of his skull was gone.”

The case I have retold, drawn from American journalist C. J. Chivers’s The Fighters,[iii] is not one of collateral killing of noncombatants, but of accidental killing. Unlike some collateral killings that may be justified as necessary militarily or excused as part of eliminating a serious threat, accidents like these, all too numerous in war, are never justified as necessary or eliminative killings. There is no military good to be achieved: killing the noncombatant is not part of a proportionality calculation.

Still, the accidents may be legally or morally excusable—due to poor intelligence, sudden blinding by enemy air fire, unpredictable shifts in flight patterns or cloud cover. This is the fog of war that McDowell faced. And yet innocents were horribly wronged. As the aviator who dropped the ordnance, McDowell carries the moral burden.

This is a stunning case of military moral injury.  But can a modern military Stoicism rooted in ancient teachings find room for moral injury? Can a Stoic, bent on the calm that comes with discipline and virtue, leave space for the anxiety of perceived or real failure, or anger at those who make sport of war and take innocent civilians as their prey? Can civilians also learn how to forgive themselves for making mistakes or for accidents which have more to do with bad luck than with failures of moral responsibility?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I pose them as an educator teaching civilians and military who serve and will serve, here and abroad. Some will serve not as public servants, but in private capacities, in their workplace and communities, and in their homes. The answer to these questions has ramifications for all: When we teach Stoic texts, are we reaping the right lessons? Can we construct a healthy modern Stoicism, grounded in ancient wisdom, that recognizes moral injury and the possibility for post-traumatic growth?

The Stoics don’t talk about moral injury, per se, but they do talk about moral distress. And they teach that such distress has no place, at least in the personality profile of the ideal moral person. Here, they embrace a teaching from Socrates:  the only real harm is for you yourself to become unjust, and that is not a possibility for the truly virtuous person. A truly good person, teaches Socrates in the Apology, cannot be harmed in life or death. That is the kind of impregnability that virtue affords. Virtue is sufficient for happiness, as Socrates taught.

So, you might say, the Stoics draw a bright line rule for a sage’s behavior: A sage can do no wrong by definition, for a truly virtuous person cannot do wrong. And so, if you are a sage, and you can’t do wrong, then there is no room for moral anguish or angst. Since it is only the anguish of wrongdoing, of perpetrating wrong, that counts as real moral distress.

But what if you are not a sage? After all, we are told that a sage rises only as often as the phoenix, and that’s only every 500 years. It’s an ideal, and probably an impossible one to apply in our non-ideal, imperfect world. What if you are, like Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic and advisor to Nero, says he always is, just a moral progressor, aspiring to become better but subject to error, misevaluations of what is really worthy, caught in struggles with those in power who compromise moral autonomy and self-rule? For many of us, the compromises may not rise to the level of imperial court intrigue, with execution, poisoning, banishment, imprisonment, and enforced suicide looming in the background or foreground. But the basic condition of not being sin-free and yet aspiring to become better is, in part, what has appealed to readers of Seneca throughout the ages, in the Hellenistic world and the Judeo-Christian period that followed, and now. And it also is part of the implicit appeal of Stoicism for the military. For the military culture is one not only of unbridled can-do-ism, but of constraint and chains of authority that squeeze autonomy and force choices that leave moral detritus in their wake.

So where do we find this thread of moral aspiration in Stoic writings? We first have to go back to Plato where Socrates appears again as a foil against a less noble character. The tale which I am about to retell sets up a challenge posed to the Stoics by a famous expositor/editor of Stoic texts.

We have to go back to the very conclusion of Plato’s Symposium,a banquet in honor of the god Eros.  Alcibiades, the morally flawed and disastrous military leader who betrayed Athens to the Spartans, bursts into the drinking party and addresses his love encomium directly to Socrates, his idealized and beloved moral tutor. Socrates, he confesses, is the only one who can really hold up a mirror to Alcibiades’s own errant ways and bring on the tears of shame. The anguish and shame are often excruciating, especially when Alcibidades is in Socrates’s presence. For at those moments, confesses Alcibiades, he shows me my flaws.   “Ah—,” he says knowing his audience, “you didn’t think I had it in me, did you? Yes, he makes me feel ashamed.”[iv]

The “tears of Alcibiades” becomes a famous challenge for Stoic thought: Shouldn’t we allow in moral distress as a launching pad for moral improvement? It is Cicero who poses the challenge. Not himself a Stoic but a Roman redactor, that is an editor and most important preserver of the texts, often attracted to Stoic ways, Cicero insists in the Tusculan Disputations that Cleanthes, the second of the three Greek patriarchs of the Stoic school—they are: Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus—doesn’t take the problem seriously enough: “It seems to me that Cleanthes does not take sufficiently into account the possibility that a person might be distressed over the very thing which Cleanthes himself counts as the worst of evils.” And then Cicero reminds his readers of this Symposium passage and Alcibiades’ distress before Socrates and his desire to be more virtuous: “What are we to say about this, Cleanthes? Surely you would not claim that the circumstances which occasioned Alcibiades’ distress was not really a bad thing?” (Cicero, 2002, 3.77, 34–35).

Cicero zeroes in on the same point later in the Tusculans: “Suppose a person is upset about his own lack of virtue—his lack of courage, say, or of responsibility or integrity. The cause of his anxiety is indeed an evil!” But the anguish, the guilt or shame, is an “impulse toward virtue itself,” he says. (Cicero, 2002, 4.61–62).

In a really insightful moment, Cicero admits that it can be an “all too vigorous impulse” that can lay us low. His therapeutic counsel is not to dismiss the cause of distress, but to control what we show, at least when and where we show it—very Roman advice about decorum, and military counsel as well. But if the core cause and object of distress is our own wrongdoing, then we should seize the moment as an occasion for moral aspiration. It is a first step and impulse toward moral growth and repair.

Now let’s return to our aviator case in Kosovo. Maybe there is some degree of culpability in this horrible accident. Whether or not there is, what we know is that Lane McDowell holds himself responsible. So, too, do so many service members that I have interviewed and written about over the years, who come home from war when their battle buddies do not. They hold themselves morally responsible—for being on leave the day when improvised explosive device (IED) blasts ripped through the Army vehicle of a best friend; for having squatted rather than stood on the roof the second the insurgents took aim; for having given permission to a squad mate to get out of the Humvee to relieve himself in a spot that ended up being booby-trapped with mines; for having permissive rules of engagement that allow to put some risk on civilians for the sake of a high-stake mission, but then the civilians ends up being totally innocent children; for having restrictive rules of engagement that transfer risk onto troops, and then seeing your buddies killed when you are not at all sure if the civilians you saved were really noncombatants.

Survivors’ guilt, accident guilt, holding yourself morally responsible for events in which you may not even be causally responsible, for thinking you should have omniscience, or at least be less fallible, about who was who and what was what on that day, is how service members carry the burden of care for each other. The guilt may be fitting of good character and care. You don’t just feel grief; you feel you could have done something differently. Agency steps in to fill the horrible void. I write a lot about this moral landscape and its interface with Stoic grit in my new book, Stoic Wisdom and also in earlier books, Stoic Warriors, as well as in Afterwar and the The Untold War.  Still, the self-blame can be too harsh and unfair. The right therapy in these cases involves redrawing the lines around agency and accountability. It’s a case where letting go is understanding the limits of control. It’s also a case where compassion and mercy may have to come from others so you can learn to show it toward yourself.

This very lesson about Stoic social grit is most profound, even if disturbing, in another Roman Stoic text, and that is Seneca’s play Hercules Rages. Hercules, blinded and crazed by a spell cast by a jealous and vengeful stepmother, Juno, has just finished his labors and pierced through Hades to rejoin his family. But at the moment of that long-awaited reunion, Hercules unwittingly murders his family. His self-blame is unremitting and suicidal. He did the deed. He could’ve and should’ve done otherwise. Hindsight bias—as psychologists call it—torments him.

Fast forward and listen carefully and you can hear our own servicemembers struggling with the accidents of war, bad intelligence, the forced choices, and blinding that lead to horrific tragedies. The struggle may have to do with conduct in war, but also cause, that at first seemed just but not so any more.  Or achievable, but no longer. Or their service honorable or patriotic, but less so as missions seem futile and war partners whom they are supporting feckless and led by corrupt political leaders.

In this Stoic play, it is a father and a buddy who intervene to help Hercules find self-compassion: “The grief is yours. The guilt your stepmother’s. Bad luck is not your fault,” says his father.  Hercules’s closest friend is far more direct: “Use your heroic courage” to show yourself mercy.  

You might say this is a surprising Stoic lesson. It’s not about what we we’ve been taught to associate with Stoic resilience—namely, go-it-alone tough, macho grit. Rather, it is about a different kind of grit—of learning to accept the trust and love of others in order to rebuild inner strength.   I see this as a critical Stoic lesson for service members I’ve worked with over many decades, some returning to my classes, unraveled by the horrors of war, trying to make moral sense of their role in what they’ve done, seen, and suffered.  Some are looking for answers as they sit in my classes. Others end up writing about their wars, as journalists, who return to where they deployed as young Marines or soldiers, with a new perspective on their wars and if the fight was worth it.

As I’ve said and we know, the emotions that travel with moral injury—shame, guilt, moral despair, and sometimes, a shattered sense of moral identity may be all too apt—the sign of a soldier’s humanity.  But the self-punishment may nonetheless be profoundly unfair—not just because it doesn’t always track real or precise culpability, but because the moral burdens are shouldered disproportionately by the too few who serve in the military in this country.

Heroic courage, in Seneca’s play, requires letting others in to help vanquish the self-rage—in Hercules’s case, a caring father and a wise and benevolent friend.

The role of a benevolent buddy in self-forgiveness is, in fact, part of a protocol used by leading VA clinical and research psychologists Brett Litz (of the Boston VA and BU) in treating veterans for moral injury.    At a critical juncture in the therapy, patients are asked to imagine an “empty chair” in the room, a place and space for a trusted and benevolent friend, someone with moral authority, who might help you reclaim a sense of lost goodness. The hope is that you might begin to see a glimmer of yourself through their eyes. Or you might be asked to reverse the stance: imagine yourself as the compassionate friend to whom a buddy can turn when he’s “stuck” in the way you are, wracked with guilt and the self-harm that often follows. Would you be merciless in your blame? Would he be merciless in his toward you?

The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith, himself influenced by the Stoics, dubbed this kind of exercise “changing places in fancy.” Smith saw it as a way of building empathy, the connective tissue that allows us to share our humanity.

Service members are good at sharing humanity—up close and personal. A fighting force depends on it. March and drill depend upon it. But warriors often view the inner war as not needing the same social capital.  That is a mistake. And it’s not one that modern Stoics should make.

Marcus Aurelius is prescient on just this point. He jots his meditations as notes to himself at nightfall during the Germanic campaigns along the Danube. The intimate killing of the battlefield is likely on his mind: Picture a dismembered hand and head lying apart from the rest of the human trunk, he writes. That’s what “man makes of himself . . . when he cuts himself off” from others with whom he is connected.  The image is graphic. It’s one modern warriors know all too well.

Marcus draws a moral and psychological lesson from it, embedded deep in the foundations of Greco-Roman Stoicism. We are “at home in the world,” a stock Stoic phrase, when we recognize our mutual dependence. When we bring others close in, closer into ourselves—as a lesser known Hierocles put it, describing how we should bring outer circles of friends closer to the center point—the self.

Still the idea of Stoic social grit and mutual interdependence is a counterpoint to an image many service members conjure up of Marcus, a gilded and grand solo horseman, astride his glorious steed. The equestrian sculpture, still in Rome, may befit the honor due an emperor. But the emperor himself, writing his own breviary after a long day’s campaign, knows he is no lone horseman.  “We have come into the world to work together.” 

 With these words in mind, now look again at Marcus’s outstretched right hand in that very monumental statue. Maybe he is reaching out to others, holding out a hand. When I teach to the executive leadership of the military, 4-star admirals and generals—I stress that military leaders must acknowledge the real moral anguish suffered by many who go to war (including themselves) and that showing compassion is a way to teach self-compassion. This could not have been more painful when I was at the Pentagon observing the suicide review boards run by then Army Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli at the height of the suicide epidemic within the military.

Finally, are there other critical Stoic texts that address the themes of forgiveness and mercy? The idea of having erred and finding a way forward as moral aspirant is nowhere more evident than in Seneca’s essay On Mercy, addressed to Nero.In writing it, Seneca says he holds up “a mirror” for Nero to better see his ways. But the mirror is one Seneca holds up to himself, as well. As public spokesperson for the court, Seneca is also expressing the hope of the greater public that the tyrant will somehow show restraint, especially in the wake of having just murdered his half-brother Britannicus (at age 14) to thwart his claim to the throne. The essay’s shadow twin is Seneca’s play, the Trojan Women. In the essay, we see the promise of mercy. In the play, we see the wasteland of an after-war world bereft of it.

Mercy makes good on the gentler side of Stoicism, lost on critics, protests Seneca, who see only Stoicism’s sturdy austerity. Mercy is Andromache’s plea to Ulysses in the concluding scenes of Trojan Women. The Greeks, despite their victory, find themselves once again stuck without the right winds to set sail. And following a familiar script, Calchas, the Greek priest, recommends Hector and Andromache’s young baby son, Astyanax, be sacrificed and, too, that Polyxena, the young daughter of Priam and Hecuba, be slaughtered as a war bride on Achilles’s tomb by his proxy, his son Pyrrhus. The children must bear the crimes of their forefathers. The ghost of Achilles kills his young bride and a baby boy is thwarted from becoming a warrior who can reignite another cycle of the Trojan war.

The future Trojan warrior boy must face his fate. But his mother, Andromache, is in a mortal battle with Ulysses to protect her innocent child. She has hidden him in her husband Hector’s tomb, a place safe from enemy destruction. She begs Ulysses for mercy, for kindness, for herself as a hostage of war and as a mother whose child is her only comfort. The boy is no threat, she pleads, too young and without any power or backing to rearm a city. The boy may be a royal, but he is as good as a slave now: just put a yoke on his “royal neck.” (Seneca, 2010b, 748).

To kill the little boy is a crime of war, protests Andromache, and the atrocity will be pinned not on the gods but on you, Ulysses. But a Greek warrior, set on vengeance, cannot stay the impulse. Anger, as Seneca once again teaches, can’t be stopped, once set in motion: “I wish I could be merciful. I cannot,” answers Ulysses. (Seneca, 2010b, 764). The transmission of war, across generations, will go on, in violation of war’s permissions. Once the appetite for warrior anger is whet, it knows no bounds. Innocent children, killed by mistake or vengeance, are war’s pawns. Ulysses, the wily warrior, cunning strategist, cannot find a strategy for showing mercy, once the warrior mode grabs hold.

What we next see is the stunning consequence of the rage: a little boy forced to step off the steep embankment that was once the site of his grandfather Priam’s watchtower. The boy’s body shatters with the impact of the plunge. His corpse is mangled, his skull cracks open, brains spurt out, a little boy pulverized as if by a high impact bomb. Pleas of leniency, entreaties to restrain a victor’s revenge, reminders that these children are victims, not contributors to war, the impotency of a ghost warrior groom—all reminders that though the aggression of the war is over, none of this stays the hand of ruthless rage.  This is an ancient play, but it is replayed in the mind of our naval aviator, Lane McDowell, in the wake of his own accidental bombing of what he believes were young children.

Still, this is a strange play, we might think, for a Stoic moralist of calm. Or maybe not, for it’s a cautionary tale about excessive punishment and the difficulty of staying the impulse of raging revenge in war. But it is also about leniency in the face of overzealous punishment, whether directed at an external enemy or the enemy within. We hope Ulysses might hear the plea for mercy, for the sake of a mother and a child. But also, for the sake of himself and his troops. For maybe he will come to feel guilt, and his soldiers, too, for what they have done to an innocent. Maybe the guilt will wrack them for years to come and be the next feared Trojan War, but this one an inner war, that is fought over and over and over.

Mercy is, of course, far more elusive than anger. It requires discipline: first you have to vanquish anger, so there is space to heal. Guilt is self-anger. Self-mercy may be its therapy. And it may come from others. Even in death, as Rubens depicts, in a famous portrait of Seneca’s forced suicide, where Seneca, with bulging veins, is gathered at his side by friends. But so, too, was another Stoic icon, Socrates, famously depicted in Plato’s Apology as surrounded by friends in his final moments just before he drinks the poisonous hemlock.  Each is facing the ultimate challenge. And their Stoic grit is bolstered by others who sustain them in life, and in death.

[i] (B. Litz, and Leslie Lebowitz, Matt. J. Gray, and William Nash, 2016) 21.

[ii]  The story is retold in “The Body of an American,” a play by Dan O’Brien. I saw the play at Theater J in Washington in March 2016.

[iii] Chivers (2018, pp. 6–24, 119–121). I am grateful for correspondence and conversation with Chris Chivers about this account in the The Fighters.

[iv] Plato (1989, 216a–b). See the insightful study of Graver (2007, pp. 191–211).


  • Chivers, C. J. (2018). The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Cicero. (2002). Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4 (Graver, M. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Graver, M. (2007). Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Litz, B., and Leslie Lebowitz, Matt. J. Gray, and William Nash. (2016). Adaptive Disclosure: A new Treatment for Military Trauma, Loss, and Moral Injury. New York and London: Guilford
  • Plato. (1989). Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Seneca. (2010). Hercules Furens. In E. Wilson (Ed.), Seneca: Six Tragedies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2021). Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2015). Afterwar: Healing the Moral Injuries of Our Soldiers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2010). The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.New York, NY: W.W. Norton Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2005). Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nancy Sherman is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. A New York Times Notable Author, her most recent book is Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience. Other books include Afterwar, The Untold War (a NYT editors’ pick), Stoic WarriorsMaking a Necessity of Virtue, and The Fabric of Character. In the mid-nineties, she served as the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has written for the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times and contributes frequently to many other media outlets in the U.S. and abroad.

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings on Audible

We are delighted to announce the release of the audiobook versions of Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Vol. I & II, beautifully narrated and produced by Linda Sonrisa Jones. Volumes one and two, edited by the Modern Stoicism blog’s first editor, Patrick Ussher, contain some of the best writing featured on the blog from 2012-2016. You can find the audiobooks on Amazon and on Audible and more information about each volume is below. 

Audible: Volume I, Volume II
Amazon: Volume I, Volume II

Volume I: From Stoic ethics to emotions, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general, this book brings together a wide-ranging collection of reflections on living the Stoic life today. You’ll read advice on coping with adversity, reflections on happiness and the good life and powerful personal testimonies of putting Stoicism into practice. But you’ll also read about the links between Stoicism and psychotherapy, Stoicism and mindfulness meditation and the unexpected places Stoicism can pop up in modern culture. 

Volume II: Stoicism, the classical philosophy as a way of life practised by the Greeks and Romans, continues to resonate in the modern world. With over forty essays and reflections, this book is simultaneously a guide to practising Stoicism in your own life and to all the different aspects of the modern Stoic revival. You will learn about Stoic practical wisdom, virtue, how to relate wisely to others and the nature of Stoic joy. You will read of life-stories by those who practise Stoicism today, coping with illness and other adversities, and of how Stoicism can be helpful in many areas of modern life, from cultivating calm in the online world to contributing new solutions to the environmental crisis. And, just like the ancient Stoics did, key questions modern Stoics often ask are debated such as: Do you need God to be a Stoic? Is the Stoic an ascetic? Containing both practical wisdom and philosophical reflection, this book – the second in the Stoicism Today series – is for anyone interested in practising the Stoic life in the modern world.

Friendship and the Stoic Character in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations Book 1 by Anthony Di Mento

In Book One of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius gives thanks to several people who have been edifying role-models or who have advanced aspects of Marcus’ education in some way. In doing this he reveals a lot about what is important to him. This suggests a line of inquiry into book one. Of all the possible things that he could have nominated, what does Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, have to be thankful for – what is important to him and what is he grappling with? The answer suggests a great deal about the person Marcus was or aspired to be.

This article looks at two particular areas that Marcus was thankful for and that were important to him.

The first area concerns the creation of character. Marcus recalls people who have displayed character traits that he is grateful to have observed, and which he himself appears to want to cultivate. A by-product of this exercise of giving thanks is that Marcus presents us with a catalogue of character traits and social qualities that a Stoic ought to strive to embody. From these traits and qualities it is possible to draw an outline of the “Stoic” character. This article sketches out a composite picture of the Stoic’s character as suggested by Marcus’ various observations in Book One.

The second area concerns friendships, and how to conduct and improve interpersonal interactions with others. These are central concerns for Marcus’ conception of the Stoic character and book one contain several insights into this topic. There is a human scale in Marcus’ reflection and inquiry regarding these interpersonal interactions- as opposed to an analysis of how to govern as an emperor or how to conduct a military campaign. This attention to how the Stoic conducts and improves friendships is part of what makes Marcus Aurelias, Emperor of Rome, such an affecting figure. This article draws out certain rules or guidelines concerning how to be a friend.

The Stoic Character

Much of Marcus’ reflection in Book One records his admiration for the temperament and demeanor of the people he names. Marcus is a keen observer of how people behave and how they express their character. While it is artificial to ascribe all of the identified characteristics to one person, a composite picture of a Stoic’s character taken from book one might look something like the following.

The Stoic is courteous, even-tempered and carries themselves with an unself-conscious dignity. All of their activities are done without ostentation. Their lifestyle is simple without the usual habits of the rich, and they perform duties energetically but without fanfare or fuss. They present with good cheer in all circumstances.

In decision making they are deliberate, methodical, decisive and consistent. They consider issues carefully and having come to a considered decision they proceed with a fixed purpose and in a calm and steady way.

They are plain speaking and when required they express approval quietly and undemonstratively. They are not prone to anger or jealousy and they are generally imperturbable and bear difficulties and setbacks with an emotional equanimity.

But, none of the above means that the Stoic is morose or despondent, or is a difficult person to relate to on a personal level. Instead, the quality of their interactions with others is an important and persistent concern for Marcus. The Stoic is generous, affable, gracious, kind, sympathetic, sincere and has an agreeable sense of humour. They are capable of being sanguine. There is an underlying empathy and care and concern for others. They are conscious of the emotions of others and are not harsh, blustering or unnecessarily critical in their dealings.

The result is a mature and finished personality. A Stoic will be recognisable for their strength of character and for their full and indomitable spirit.

How the Stoic is a Good Friend

The Stoic character discernible from book one is very aware of the importance of friendship and of broader social interactions. The Stoic is not looking to cultivate a solitary resilience. Instead, the aim is to fully occupy their place in society. To that end the Stoic’s interactions with friends and others are conducted with some care and attention. The Stoic implements approaches and practices intended to cultivate friendships and to foster courteous and mutually dignified social exchanges.

These approaches and practices can be considered as falling into two streams. One stream concerns the Stoic’s general temperament and demeanour. It can be reasonably accepted that the Stoic character summarised above is easy to get along with. Empathy and concern for others, along with the qualities of affability, graciousness, kindness, sympathy, sincerity, forgiveness, truthfulness and an agreeable sense of humour are all characteristics that are generally coveted in a friend. Sextus for example had an intuitive concern for his friends and an agreeable manner with all.

The second stream provides guidelines and rules about how to act with others. The guidelines, or rules of etiquette, found in book one can be grouped into the following topics of guidance.

First, avoid arrogance. The Stoic does not flaunt their knowledge or their status. They do not make others feel inferior and they are tolerant and courteous with everyone, whatever their social level and whatever their education level. Everyone is given their due. Arrogance is avoided, for example, by speaking plainly without speechifying or pretentious language and the Stoic does not parade their learning- they wear it lightly. Importantly though, a Stoic’s knowledge and their ultimate reliance on clear reasoning is always evident. It underlies all of their activities and decisions, but it never needs to be overtly deployed. The Stoic also makes themselves more approachable and avoids arrogance by their simple dress and lifestyle, without the usual displays of the rich.

Second, do not unnecessarily find fault (which is to some degree an attempt to appear superior). If the Stoic thinks they perceive an error, then they look for tactful, subtle ways to offer correction when the opportunity arises and they are patient when providing an explanation.

Third, remember others have their own pressures. The Stoic knows that others have their own demands and pressures and they accept without complaint that others may not always be available to meet. The ability to accept this is an instance of the Stoic’s core of self-belief and of their confidence in the affection of friends (more on this later).

Fourth, never be too busy. As mentioned above, the Stoic accepts without complaint that others may not always be available for them. But the Stoic does not adopt the converse of this rule in their favour. Only when strictly necessary (which is rarely), would the Stoic turn people away by saying “I am too busy.” The underlying reasoning is that no one should avoid or defer the duties obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs. The very notion that we owe such social duties or obligations appears to be of central importance for Marcus. He is reminding himself about the obligation to make an effort with others regardless of whatever other inclinations he might have to avoid that contact. Perhaps Marcus perceives that this issue requires his particular attention given his special position. It is not hard to imagine that as emperor he could have easily avoided his duties and obligations (and pursued other interests) without having had to give any explanation or account of himself at all. Later emperors provide examples of this approach. Marcus is aware of the temptation and works against it.

Fifth, accept favours. Marcus thanks Apollonius for teaching him how to respond to the challenge (for some) of accepting favours. The particular quality of the favours he was concerned with has been variously translated as “pretended,” “apparent,” things that are “thought to be favours,” or just “favours”. The quality underlying the favour of course makes a difference. But it appears that in passage 8 Marcus is saying that the Stoic should receive favours without appearing compromised and without lowering self-respect. Nor should unfeeling indifference or insensitivity be evident in the acceptance or possible rejection of the favours.

Sixth, work at friendships. Relationships involve work. Marcus saw an example of this from Catulus who taught Marcus not to dismiss criticisms from friends even if unreasonable. In response to such criticisms the Stoic should work to restore or improve that friend’s opinion of them. This “leave no friends behind” approach underscores the importance the Stoic places on friendships- even in response to an unreasonable rebuke, the Stoic should make effort to restore the relationship. Arguably, this can only be done based on a recognition of, and a sense of duty around, the importance of human connection coupled with a forgiving and selfless approach to others.

Overall, the Stoic’s social dealings with others are conducted with courtesy, respect and patience. The Stoic is kind, sympathetic and sincere. The suggested etiquette to be applied towards friendships in combination with the Stoic’s general temperament and demeanour help them to be a good friend and citizen. It leads to enduring friendships that are not capricious or short-lived in a burst of extravagance.

Remarkably, Marcus’ discussion about friendships never descends into a judgmental examination about what to expect from others. It does not become a discussion about how to evaluate the worthiness, or otherwise, of friends. Nor is it a counsel about surrounding ourselves with “suitable” friends. They are taken as they are – without demands or expectations. Instead, the area of concern is internal to the Stoic. The explanation for this apparent magnanimity may be as simple as appreciating that Marcus is manifesting a clearsighted focus on the things that he can control. In contrast, the attitude and attributes of others, including friends, are outside his control (and are things that will at times be challenging to accept).

Confidence in the Affection of his Friends

None of the above-mentioned qualities come at the expense of self-respect and none diminish or undermine the Stoic’s own overall attitude and approach. So, the Stoic is forthright and speaks plainly in expressing his opinion, including criticism. Also, while they are on guard to ensure they do not make others feel inferior, this does not mean that others come to doubt the Stoic’s strength and abilities.

This maintenance of personal integrity links into a particularly insightful comment about friendships, being that the Stoic should have confidence in the affection of his friends. This confidence underpins the Stoic’s preservation of his personal integrity even while addressing the challenges of agreeableness. 

Initially, the insight seems to have an aspirational quality to it – confidence in any endeavor is usually something to continually strive for and is intermittently elusive (except perhaps for the self-deluded). But looked at another way, this confidence is eminently logical rather than aspirational. After all, if someone implements the etiquette practices and displays the sort of temperament referred to above, then they would have a sound rational basis for being confident about the affection of friends.

Furthermore, the suggestion that the Stoic should have confidence in the affection of others is itself very sound advice about how to be a good friend. In a sense it could be listed as a seventh item in the guidelines for conduct referred to above. A Stoic who embodies this confidence is not cloying or unctuous and avoids verging into the dreaded territory of being needy. Instead, they can graciously accept compliments without excessive shows of false modesty, and they can accept criticism without undue defensiveness or hurt feelings, and without feeling as though their fundamental identity has been attacked and that they are about to be cast out from the protection of the tribe. Similarly, they can provide their friends with meaningful compliments and constructive criticism (in the plain-speaking fashion referred to above).


An underlying message in Book One is that developing character is an active endeavor that requires, or at least benefits from, self-aware deliberation. Marcus undertakes a process of reviewing the character elements that he has observed in others and of identifying the traits that he values. He is undertaking a form of self-analysis regarding the life experiences that have influenced the psychological development of his personality and character.

As a result of Marcus’ exercise of delving into his origin story, we get to see a fairly detailed picture of what a Stoic character looks like. Some personality traits are firmly identifiable. The Stoic is not extravagant and not carless, and they are resilient and confident. However, there are some points of tension. So, while it is possible to detect a tendency to being solitary or reserved, this does not override the energetic approach to the performance of duties and obligations. At times Marcus appears to be willing himself to fulfill his obligations and duties- instead of resolving all such matters in his favour by deploying his powers as emperor. Similarly, while the Stoic has a strong tendency to critical thinking and methodical rationality, this is not imposed on others and nor is not at the expense of maintaining a friendly and sociable outlook.

But there are limits and the pursuit of agreeableness should not be at the expense of other core Stoic values. This comes out in the discussion about having confidence in the affection of your friends. The version of agreeableness or affability that the Stoic practices does not equate to simply trying to “fit in”. For example, the Stoic does not participate in the popular pastimes tacitly used as opportunities to form social bonds. Specifically, given the era, they are not interested in chariot racing or gladiatorial contests. The Stoic therefore avoids distorting or undermining their character and better judgment for the sake of being merely or superficially sociable. Importantly, the Stoic’s confidence gives each friend a chance to show the best qualities of their friendship (and perhaps to make mistakes).

Anthony Di Mento studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He has encountered Stoicism as an effective and salutary philosophy for life. Other current areas of study include economic systems and critical thinking skills. He lives and works as a pastry chef and lawyer in Sydney, Australia.

Meet Our New Modern Stoicism Team Members

Over the last several years, we have expanded the team for the Modern Stoicism organization by bringing on new members. Each of them brings not only interest in and enthusiasm about Stoic philosophy, practice, and community with them, but also valuable skills, knowledge, and experiences. All of them have been making substantive and welcome contributions in a variety of manners, in some cases behind the scenes. Our expanded team now has 14 members, which not only spreads the work around, but also allows us room and range to take on additional projects devoted to helping people study and practice Stoicism worldwide.

After writing the post two weeks back announcing that Harald Kavli was coming on as Assistant Editor of Stoicism Today, I realized that we could probably use a post telling you, our readers, about all of the new team members we have added over the last several years (and that our About The Team page was sorely in need of updating as well!). This long-overdue update takes us back all the way to Piotr and Andi, who have been contributing members of the team for several years. More recently Phil, Eve, and Brittany joined the team as well, and the most recent addition is indeed Harald.

I asked each of them to provide a short introduction of themselves to you, and with no further ado, here they are!

Eve Riches

I’m so excited to be a part of the Modern Stoicism team and I am convinced that Stoicism can help anyone to live the good life. I’m passionate about bringing Stoicism to people who might never pick up a philosophy book, including children, teenagers and people from a non-academic background. Stoicism has given me so much in terms of helping me live well with disability, so it has been a real honour to be able to share that experience with others. I’m particularly interested in Stoic ethics, and also the importance of self-care in our contribution to the greater good.

Brittany Polat

I am thrilled and honored to be joining the Modern Stoicism team, which continues to be so instrumental in bringing Stoicism to people all over the world. As Stoics, we can offer a different vision of life that is rare in the 21st century: a principled but non-strident way of dealing with the complex problems facing our society. Just as ancient Stoicism once did, modern Stoicism provides an intellectually rigorous framework for answering our most important questions, not just theoretically, but practically. Stoics lead the way in showing that a life of reason and virtue can also be a life of action and engagement. What a privilege it is to continue the noble tradition of Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius as we shape and share Stoicism for a new era. I look forward to working with Modern Stoicism and with modern Stoics everywhere, who are making the world a better place in their own inspiring ways.  

Talking Tranquility with Brittany Polat

Phil Yanov

Hi, I’m Phil Yanov and I’m here to help people run great meetings. And – I’m a Stoic. I love events where people can learn things and make the changes in their lives that they want. I feel like Modern Stoicism has the unfair advantage of having some of the best minds of our generation working to advance the understanding of how Stoicism can help all of us through uncertain times. I am delighted to be the bat boy… or Zoom boy for these heavy hitters. There are so many brilliant people on the Modern Stoicism team and my job is to make sure the megaphone is working when they are ready to share. For that adventure, I am all in. If you want to talk about Stoicism, I can be reached on Twitter, LinkedIn, or on the web.

Andi Sciacca

I like to think of myself as an advocate for access, education, and equity – and a proud #MKEpreneur.  I am most fulfilled when I can help others leverage learning opportunities in ways that help them connect and flourish.  As a person who does a great deal of work in leadership and board positions, I find that there are plenty of opportunities to practice Stoicism in my work.  The most important aspect for me is found in the constancy and the solidness of regular study coupled with the application of what I am learning through that practice.  Whether I’m reading Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus, or reviewing a comment from someone in an online course, or a post on Stoicism Today written by someone applying Stoicism to their lives – whatever the source, there is an undercurrent of substance that steadies me.  I’ve found exceptional value in the study of Stoicism and the ways in which it has helped me understand the pursuit of a good life and the willingness to accept what that life brings. 

Piotr Stankiewicz

My journey with the Stoics began in 2006 when I first realized that Stoicism is the platform I may use to put my life on track. Over time it turned out that many folks out there are interested in my Stoic adventures. Hence a number of books followed, first in my native Polish then in English (see here). At the end of the day the best way to strengthen one’s Stoicism is to discuss it with others — so here I am. Somewhere on that path it dawned on me that the ideas I develop and preach differ quite a bit from the hardline, orthodox Stoicism. I embraced that notion and thus the concept of reformed Stoicism originated. I believe that in the 21st century, in the time of unfathomable advancement and colossal challenges, we need a new way to narrate the Stoic premises and promises. That’s exactly what I propose. Besides Stoicism I write books on other topics and I keep testing yet new waters. I believe that in doing so I stay faithful to what I wrote in the book on Stoicism and creativity, i.e. that the two don’t need to contradict each other. Shoot me an email any time — my contact info is all here.

Harald Kavli

Hello! Many of you got introduced to me in a post just a little while ago. I am currently trying to finish my master’s thesis, in which I try to answer whether virtue is sufficient for happiness. My main interest in Stoicism is probably ethics, but I am also getting more and more interested in their logic. I have also studied Ancient Greek and my long-term goal is to translate Epictetus’ Discourses at some point. 

So, please welcome all of the new and newer members of the Modern Stoicism organization team! You’ll be seeing quite a lot of them and the fruits of their involvements in the years to come.

The STOIC – July 2021

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


  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI Can you do Stoicism the easy way?             
  • SHARON LEBELL Shift your attention to flourish          
  • JONAS SALZGEBER Focus on the present moment          
  • LEONIDAS KONSTANTAKOS Be better        
  • BRITTANY POLAT Tame your mind        
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ Use Stoicism as an antidote  
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ It’s better than you think: 80/120 rule          
  • ELBERT HUBBARD The story of Marcus Aurelius [4]       


  • Stoic every day (Quotes for every day of the month)      
  • Our regular features


Do Stoic Ethics Depend On The Stoic Worldview? by Chris Gill

Modern Stoicism and the Stoic worldview

A question sometimes raised is whether being a Modern Stoic requires you to adopt the Stoic worldview as well as Stoic ethical principles. At first sight, this is a rather strange question. Although Stoic ethical ideas can still be valid for us, how can we, realistically, adopt a picture of the world that is so remote from modern scientific thinking? However, those who argue for this position usually have in mind broad features of the Stoic worldview, and not the detailed framework of Stoic physics and cosmology.

What people are considering is whether they can  accept the Stoic idea that the world or universe, and the overall sequence of events, has an overall providential purpose or meaning or an in-built order. Also, it is quite often assumed that Stoic ethical principles depend on, or are grounded in, the Stoic worldview. So some people they think that, if you are going to adopt Stoicism in a wholehearted way, this means taking over the Stoic worldview and its role as a basis for ethical principles and practices.

I’ll come back later to the question of whether a Modern Stoic should adopt the Stoic worldview and if so, why. First, however, I discuss the idea that Stoic ethical principles depend on the Stoic worldview. Is it actually the case, as far as we can tell, that the ancient Stoics thought about the relationship between the two areas in this way?

Ancient Stoicism: Ethics and Worldview – Scope for Variation

On this question, I focus on two points. First, it seems that different Stoics took different views on this question and that Stoic ethical ideas could be presented, validly, in different ways, which give varying scope for linkage with the Stoic worldview. Also, although it is sometimes suggested, by modern scholars and in ancient sources, that Stoic ethics ‘depend’ on, or are ‘grounded on’, the Stoic worldview, it is not easy to decide exactly what that means or how far it is true. I take these two points in order.

For many people drawn to Modern Stoicism, the two best-known thinkers are Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Both are centrally concerned with the project of living a life in line with Stoic ethical principles; but they also stress, in slightly different ways, points of connection between ethical ideas and practice and Stoic thinking about god or gods, the universe as a structured whole, and the overall course of events, seen as providentially shaped. So, if your view of Stoicism is based, primarily, on these thinkers, it seems obvious that Stoic ethics and worldview are very closely linked.

It may come as a surprise, then, to find out that Stoic ethics are not always presented in this way. Cicero’s On Duties, for instance, presents a practically oriented version of Stoic ethics – and a highly accessible one – but there is virtually nothing on the Stoic worldview. Cicero was not himself a Stoic thinker, though he is a very important source for ancient Stoic ideas. Cicero tells us that Books 1-2 of On Duties are based on a work on the same subject by Panaetius (c. 185- c. 110 BCE), the last head of the Stoic school in the Hellenistic period, and Book 3, though composed independently, draws on Stoic writings. To judge from Cicero’s version, Panaetius gave a prominent role to the idea of nature in his ethical writing; but it is human nature (usually conceived as characteristically rational and sociable) that he stressed, and not the Stoic worldview.

There are other indications of variation within Stoic writings on this topic. For specialist scholars of Stoicism, the most important sources for Stoic ethics are three ancient summaries of doctrines. Although these come from works of different periods of antiquity, they all seem to be based on the ideas of Chrysippus, the most important and influential Stoic thinker (c. 280-c. 206 BCE). One is by Cicero (On Ends Book 3); another is taken from Stobaeus, a late handbook writer though the summary seems to come from Arius Didymus (late 1st. cent. BCE); the third is by Diogenes Laertius, a late handbook writer (Book 7).

Although all three summaries are generally seen as giving a reliable account of mainstream, Hellenistic, Stoic ethical theory, there are significant variations in the extent to which they stress the linkage between ethical principles and the Stoic worldview. In all three summaries, much of the discussion is presented in purely ethical terms. This point applies to the distinctive Stoic idea that happiness depends on virtue and not on the combination of virtue and other things normally regarded as good (that is, what the Stoics call ‘indifferents’). However, all three summaries also combine discussion of this idea and other ethical topics with references to nature. The summary of Arius Didymus, like Cicero’s On Duties, links these ideas only with human nature and excludes all reference to cosmic nature. The summaries of Cicero (in On Ends 3) and Diogenes Laertius combine discussions that are mainly presented in purely ethical terms with some references to cosmic nature, as I bring out shortly.

What this suggests, I think, is that there was no single, orthodox or authoritative, way of presenting Stoic ethics in this respect. Although there was a wide measure of agreement about the key Stoic ethical doctrines themselves, it was recognized that there could be valid variation in the way and extent to which these were supported by reference to ideas of nature, whether human or cosmic. The mode of presentation we find in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, in which ethics is consistently and closely linked with cosmic nature, does not reflect the more varied approach to this topic we find in these more technical ancient sources for ethics.

Ethics and Nature: Illustrations of Different Views

Let’s take a closer look at the different ways in which ideas about nature are linked with key Stoic ethical ideas in these ancient summaries of ethical doctrines. As well as illustrating the variety of approach to this topic found in ancient writers, these passages also provide material for considering whether Stoic ethics is grounded on cosmic nature or not. I take three examples: ideas about virtue and happiness, ethical development understood as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis), and (referring to a broader set of Stoic writings) resilience in the face of disaster.

As just noted, a key Stoic theme is that happiness is based solely on virtue and not on whether we also have things like health and wealth, or even on the welfare of our friends and family. Happiness, in Stoicism, is often conceived as a natural life or ‘life according to nature’, but this idea can be understood in different ways.

In one ethical summary, that of Arius Didymus, this idea is closely linked with that of human nature, understood as rational and sociable. The underlying point is that if we live a virtuous life, we are therefore living the best possible human life, which is also a happy life, and this holds true even if we have to manage without things like health and wealth (that is, ‘indifferents’).

In another summary, that of Diogenes Laertius, in a passage cited from Chrysippus, the linkage between virtue and happiness is presented in terms of ‘harmonizing oneself’ with Zeus, as the directing agency in the universe (7.87-9). This linkage is not fully explained there; but I think the most plausible interpretation is this. Both virtue and happiness are characterized in Stoic ethics in terms of inner structure, order, coherence and wholeness. These are also seen in Stoic thought as salient characteristics of the universe as a whole, which is seen as shaped by in-built divine agency (or by Zeus). So again, if our lives have these crucial features, we can achieve virtue and thus happiness, based on virtue, even if we have to do without other things conventionally regarded as good and as making for happiness.

A second major ethical theme sometimes linked with human or cosmic nature is that of ethical development understood as appropriation (oikeiōsis). In the summary of Arius Didymus (5b3), and also in Cicero’s On Duties(1.11-15), the development of the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and moderation) is presented as based on the expression of four primary human motives, reflecting different side of human action and experience. These primary motives, and their fully developed form (the four virtues) express human nature as a whole, conceived as both rational and sociable.

Elsewhere, in Diogenes Laertius (7.85) and Cicero, On Ends 3 (3.16, 3.62), appropriation is linked with features reflecting nature in a broader sense. For instance, the two basic motives expressed in appropriation, to care for oneself and to care for others of one’s kind, are viewed as motives common to all animals, including human beings, but expressed in human beings in a rational way. Those motives are also seen as a localized expression of a factor present in the world or universe as a whole, namely providential care for all aspects of nature. Nature’s providential care, which is ‘internalized’ in animal (including human) motivation, ensures that animals care for each other and others of their kind.

Also, in one of the accounts of appropriation (in Cicero, On Ends 3.21), we find again the idea that the achievement of virtue and happiness (seen as the climax of human development) constitutes a kind of inner structure, order or consistency, which is elsewhere seen as a characteristic of the universe as a whole. So on this topic too (appropriation), a distinctive Stoic ethical theme can be presented in terms of either human nature or the larger natural framework

Another, very characteristically Stoic idea is that the achievement of virtue enables us to show resilience and peace of mind in the face of what are normally seen as disasters. This too is a theme that can be linked with the idea of expressing either human or cosmic nature at its best. In Cicero, On Duties 3 (3.99-111), the Roman statesman and general Regulus serves as an exemplar for this response, facing death at the hand of an enemy rather than living a secure and respected life with his family, friends and community. As presented by Cicero, Regulus exemplifies acting according to virtue (courage or ‘magnanimity’ and justice), and showing resilience and equanimity in doing so, even though this deprives him of things normally regarded as good. By implication, at least, he is also achieving the best possible human life, in expressing the virtues and realizing human nature as rational and sociable, an idea prominent in On Duties.

This same response of virtuous resilience is often presented as an ideal and a focus for aspiration by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Here too, the response is based on giving proper value to virtue (as the sole basis for a happy life) even at the loss of things conventionally valued like health and wealth. But the response is also typically associated with cosmic nature instead of (or sometimes as well as) human nature. In Epictetus, for instance, the response is often linked with acting in line with god (or the god inside us) or with the will or plan of Zeus. In Marcus Aurelius, it is often associated with acting in line with nature as a whole, cosmic nature, conceived as providential or ordered, or the overall drift of events within the world or universe. The ideas noted already here, linking the virtuous or happy life with these features of cosmic nature, help to explain this association of ideas.

What About ‘Grounding’?

As noted earlier, it is often supposed that Stoic ethical principles are ‘grounded’ on the Stoic worldview, an idea supported by some ancient evidence. This is a suggestive idea, but there are at least three difficulties with it.

One is the point stressed here: the variations in the way that Stoic ethics are presented. If Stoic ethics were seen as dependent on the Stoic worldview, we would expect this idea to be reflected, consistently, in the ancient presentation of ethics. The variations we find suggest that Stoic ethics were regarded as ideas which could be analysed in their own terms (those of types of value, for instance), or supported by reference to ideas of human nature or cosmic nature, rather than based solely on the Stoic worldview.

Although some ancient evidence appears to state, quite explicitly, that Stoic ethics depend on the Stoic worldview, this evidence is less clear-cut than it seems. The point may be that the worldview is the ‘foundation’ for ethics, or that it is the best ‘starting-point’ or ‘access-point’ for studying ethics; the key term, archē, can mean either. But these two possible meanings carry different implications for the question at issue. Also, in general, the relationship between the three main branches of Stoic knowledge is presented as an equal or reciprocal one. Physics is not typically presented as superior or authoritative over ethics or logic.

The question what it means to ‘ground’ one type of idea on another type is, potentially, quite complex, and different senses have different implications. For instance, the grounding of Stoic ethics might be religious, based on ideas about god; or meta-ethical, based on ideas about the foundation of ethics; or epistemological, based on ideas about different forms or levels of knowledge. Or it might be metaphysical or physical, based on ideas about different types of reality. These different senses of ‘grounding’ carry quite different implications and appeal to quite different factors. I do not think it is obvious in what sense we can say that Stoic ethics are ‘grounded’ in the Stoic worldview.

Overall, I think it is to better to rely on the features of presentation already discussed, showing that Stoic ethics can be presented in different ways, including reference to the Stoic worldview but not excluding other forms of presentation. This suggests that Stoic ethics can be supported or informed by the Stoic worldview but are not (exclusively) dependent on or derived from it.

And Modern Stoicism?

I return now to the questions raised at the start about what it means to be a Modern Stoic. The question is often raised, whether, if you are going to adopt Stoicism in a whole-hearted way, you have to embrace the Stoic worldview as well as ethical principles, and also adopt the idea, often assumed, that Stoic ethics depend on the Stoic worldview. Some modern thinkers, notably Lawrence Becker (A New Stoicism, Princeton, 1998/2017), have argued that, because we cannot now accept the Stoic worldview, we must adopt a ‘new’ or modernized Stoicism, eliminating the worldview. However, if the view presented here is correct, Becker is not so much making a radical break with ancient Stoicism but rather adopting one of the possible ancient approaches. He takes an approach similar to the summary of Arius Didymus, or Cicero’s On Duties, linking ethical principles with a conception of human nature (see Becker’s discussion of ‘following the facts’ of human nature and psychology, ch. 5).

However, some other modern thinkers take a different line, arguing that we should adopt the ancient Stoic line, as they interpret this, of basing ethics on a conception of cosmic nature. Some argue this because they are attracted to the Stoic worldview (as ordered and providential) on religious grounds. Others, notably Kai Whiting, do so because they see Stoic thinking on cosmic nature and ethics as providing support for modern environmental ethics. I agree with him about the idea that Stoic thinking can lend support to modern environmental ethics, because of the Stoic linkage between ethical ideas and worldview. However, I do not think this means that we have to adopt the position that Stoic ethics was based, exclusively, on the Stoic worldview.

For instance, the Stoic worldview provides a basis for the idea that nature (including non-animate things) is of inherent value and not just valuable because of its benefit for human beings, that is, for what is sometimes called an ‘eco-centric’ viewpoint. Also, the Stoic picture of nature as ordered can reinforce modern concerns about climate breakdown by underlining the idea that climate breakdown reflects a state of cosmic dis-orderand one we should make every possible effort to correct. Further, the Stoic linkage between human qualities (virtue and happiness) and cosmic ones can offer support to us in framing an ethical response to the climate crisis. We can conceive virtue (or the creation of order within us) as closely linked with promoting order in the world (or at least with trying to counteract the disorder created by human beings).

However, we can explore all these suggestive Stoic ideas without also maintaining that, in so doing, we are adopting the ancient Stoic view that ethics are grounded on their worldview. We need only assume that Stoic ethical ideas can be closely linked with, and supported by, the Stoic worldview, as well as by their ideas about human nature. I think this view matches best the available evidence about ancient Stoic thought as well as providing a good basis for engagement between modern ethical thinking of various kinds and Stoicism.

Further Reading

For the three ancient summaries of ethical doctrines in translation, see B. Inwood and L. Gerson, The Stoics Reader (Indianapolis, 2008), pp. 113-57. On human nature, typically seen as rational and sociable, linked with the virtue-happiness relationship, and the human motives underlying the virtues, see (Arius Didymus), pp. 125, 126, 132-3. For similar ideas, see Cicero, On Duties 1.11-23, 1.50-3, 3.21-8. On cosmic nature, linked with virtue-happiness, and appropriation, see The Stoics Reader, pp. 113-14, 151-3; also A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987 = LS), sections 57 F, 59 D, 63 C.

For ancient evidence suggesting ethics is grounded on cosmic nature (or takes its ‘starting-point’ from this), see LS 60 A, also Cicero, On Ends 3.73. For evidence on the relationship between the three main branches of knowledge, see LS 26 A-E.

The question whether or not Stoic ethics is based on the Stoic worldview has been much debated by specialist scholars. See, from different standpoints, A. A. Long, Stoic Studies Cambridge, 1996), chs. 6, 8: J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford 1993), ch. 5; reviewing the debate, C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 145-66. See also, on variation within Stoic ethics on this question, J. Annas, ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52 (2007), 58-87; B. Inwood, ‘Why Physics?’, in R. Salles (ed.), God and Cosmos in Stoicism (Oxford, 2009), ch. 7. See also M. Schofield, ‘Stoic Ethics, in B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge, 2003), ch. 9; K. Whiting, and L. Konstantakos, L. (2019), ‘Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?’, Religions 10(3), 193.

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

Meet Stoicism Today’s New Assistant Editor, Harald Kavli

As an organization, we have been fortunate at Modern Stoicism to enjoy considerable continuity over the years. Quite a few of the original team members are still actively involved in the organization and its activities. A few have since moved on to other projects and prospects, but in their place more team members have been added.

I myself joined the team in Spring of 2016, taking over as editor of Stoicism Today by invitation of the original editor, Patrick Ussher, seconded and welcomed by the other members of the team at that time. As I mentioned in my first blog post way back then, Patrick had done an excellent job in building up the readership and stock of writings of the blog, and was leaving it in great shape.

After putting in a bit over five years as editor, and discussing the matter with the Modern Stoicism team – and even more importantly with Harald himself – I am happy to announce the news that Harald Kavli will be assuming the role of assistant editor of Stoicism Today as of today. This also means that he becomes another of our recent additions, expanding the Modern Stoicism team. Harald is a colleague, collaborator, and friend of mine, and I have every confidence in his capacities and commitment. Before introducing you, our readers, to Harald in a bit more detail, I’d like to say a little about why I wanted to bring him on and in.

Modern Stoicism As An Ongoing Project

It is clear that there is at present – and for the foreseeable future – a real need for an organization like Modern Stoicism ltd. Interest in Stoicism worldwide continues to grow and show no sign of even slowing down. We have not hit the “peak Stoic” point that we have wondered about and discussed at previous Stoicon conferences. Each year, Modern Stoicism plans and provides that big central Stoicon conference, followed by Stoic Week, with a handbook, an online course, and a number of other activities. In recent years, we have added a 4-week Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training online course as well. And Modern Stoicism also gathers data and engages in research focused on whether and how Stoicism demonstrably helps those who study and practice it.

There are a number of partner organizations to Modern Stoicism. Some of these are worldwide, like the global Stoic Fellowship. Others are based in particular places, like the many local communities within the Stoic Fellowship, or the Aurelius Foundation based in London. Others exist largely online, like the Stoic Gym that publishes The Stoic each month. There is a good bit of overlapping membership and leadership between all of these organizations. So there’s a lot going on – and Stoicism Today plays a role in publicizing not just the events and activities of Modern Stoicism, but also these other organizations as well.

Modern Stoicism has ben growing and expanding over the years as an organization, taking on additional projects and functions, coordinating a good bit of work worldwide, continually asking how we can bring this life-changing philosophy to more and more people. Over time, it became clear that the team needed to expand, bringing in additional members to put their talents to work, shouldering their share of the tasks, and contributing their own ideas and insights.

The work involved in editing the Stoicism Today blog is considerable, and I have been carrying it on as a volunteer all these years, often remaining just a few steps ahead of our publication schedule. One reason to bring on an assistant editor is to spread the continuous work of responding to enquiries, providing suggestions for improving drafts, editing the actual posts, corresponding with authors, and writing needed copy (just to name a few of the tasks) out over two people. It’s not just a matter of sharing work, though. that expression “two heads are better than one” holds not just for generating ideas, or putting in work, but also for copyediting and formatting.

Like any other organization, if we are thinking long-term, Modern Stoicism has to also prudently bring in “new blood”. We need to bring on and integrate new team members who are younger, and at earlier stages of their own education and professional development. That’s good succession planning, ensuring continuity to the organization if and when team members inevitably have to move on. But it’s also – in my view – good to have more minds and voices involved in editing Stoicism Today. We need every so often to add fresh ideas and perspectives, and I am sure that Harald will bring them as assistant editor.

I have no plans for the immediate future to step down as editor of Stoicism Today, but I do think that it would be good for me to do so eventually. Organizational roles like editor shouldn’t remain vested in one particular person for too long. I hope and am willing to serve for several more years, but my intention is for Harald at some time to assume the position of editor (and at that time to be a bit more prudent than I have been and bring on an assistant right off the bat!)

Why Harald In Particular?

Speaking of prudence – that is, practical wisdom, one of the Stoic virtues – it would be quite reasonable for you, the readers of Stoicism Today, to ask: ok, we get why you should bring in an assistant – but why this person in particular? And that is an excellent question. I am going to provide here in print more or less the same case I presented orally in our most recent meeting of the Modern Stoicism team.

Among the many qualities that Harald have, several are particularly relevant to his being an excellent prospect for assistant editor. One of these is a substantive commitment to Stoicism as a philosophy of life. We don’t have anything like an orthodoxy requirement or test in the Modern Stoicism organization – if we did, we’d be going against the very philosophy itself, as Seneca himself pointed out in his letters! But it does make sense that the editorial staff of a blog or online journal focused on Stoicism ought both to be knowledgeable and to have some appreciation for and commitment to the philosophy. All of those apply to Harald.

I first met him online, over email and Skype, when he was the founder and organizer of the local meetup for Stoicism in Norway, the Oslo Stoics. We had a number of conversations about all sorts of aspects of Stoicism, and then were able to meet up face to face at Stoicon when it was held in London in 2018. In fact, we made the time between events for me to interview Harald about his project of translating Epictetus into Norwegian (you can watch that interview here).

As time went on, Harald and I began not just discussing, but collaborating on a research projects, some of which focus specifically on Stoic thinkers, texts, and ideas (we’re actually presenting one of those, on prohairesis in Aristotelian and Stoic traditions this coming week, at the annual Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition conference). You get to know a person quite well when working together in that way, and meeting weekly by Skype for in-depth conversations.

Among the many qualities Harald possesses that will serve him well in this new role is that portion of the virtue of Courage that the Stoics identified as “industriousness” – philoponia, in Greek, literally a “love of toil”. He also has an excellent wit, an openness and inquisitiveness about perspectives in philosophy and practical life, and a knack for working ideas through. Harald also brings solid editorial experience to the position, from his previous work with the Norwegian philosophy journal Filosofisk Supplement (mentioned below)

So I’m very happy that he accepted the invitation to join the Modern Stoicism team and to take on this new position of assistant editor. You’ll be seeing quite a bit of Harald in the months and years to come, and getting to know him through his work. I thought it might be good to start out with a short interview, and asked him to write responses to the questions below.

A Brief Interview With Harald

Question: What got you interested in Stoicism originally?

Answer: I more or less stumbled into it about 7 years ago. I think I first encountered Stoicism while I was googling philosophical counseling and read a blog entry about Stoicism from a Norwegian philosophical counselor. I have always been a bit neurotic and anxious, as well as quite irritable, so the first thing that got my interested was the idea that there can be a gap in between an event and a reaction, and that we have some kind of control over how we react to events. The first Stoic that I read was Marcus Aurelius, and reading him gave me a completely new outlook on life. I also tried cognitive-behavioral therapy around that time, so I also picked up Robertson’s book on CBT and Stoicism quite early on.

Q: Has your interest(s) in Stoicism changed over the years?  How so? 

A: In the beginning, Stoicism was merely a toolbox for mental wellbeing for me, but that changed after I began studying philosophy at the University of Oslo. I think that the Stoics have a lot to say regarding contemporary philosophical problems, for instance on human agency and freedom of the will, as well as their ethics and theory about the emotions. So, I would say that my interest has gotten deeper and more theoretical than it used to be. At the same time, I do not think that a theoretical interest in philosophy is necessarily in conflict with a practical approach. 

Q: You have some wide interests in philosophy. Would you say that you’re primarily a “Stoic”, more of an eclectic or pluralist, or somewhere in between?

A: I don’t think that I’ve encountered any other philosopher or philosophical school that has influenced my way of thinking as much as the Stoics have. I do, however, recognize that there are plenty of value to be found outside of the Stoa, and that there are some questions that the Stoics did not write about directly, or that they did write about it, but that the texts in which they did so are no longer extant. There are also a few places where I disagree with the Stoics, for instance when it comes to ethical questions regarding animals. I agree with Kai Whiting that we should try to include all sentient life in our circles of concern. I am, however, a bit hesitant to call myself a Stoic until I (hopefully) reach the point where I have understood them more completely. I am currently writing my master’s thesis on the sufficiency debate, that is, the debate on whether virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia or whether virtue need some external goods in addition. The Stoics thought that virtue is sufficient, while the Aristoteleans disagreed. I still haven’t been able to say which side of the debate I agree with, all though I tend to favor the Stoic side for several reasons that I hope to write about in the future. 

Q: Do you engage in any Stoic practices regularly? If so, which ones – and what do you get out of them? If not, why not?

A: Not as much as I should, but when I do, I tend to do some version of the evening meditation. I think that exercises like the evening meditation is a great way to get a little bit more control over the monkey-mind. 

Q: You’ve been reading Stoicism Today regularly for quite a while. What kind of posts are your favorite to read and why? Are there any ideas you have for what Stoicism Today could add in the coming years?

A: I really like the breadth of the topics and approaches, and it is a bit hard to say what my favorite thing to read is. There have been several really good entries in the past, from both academic philosophers as well as laypeople, and the topics vary from current affairs to timeless discussions, and from the theoretical and to the practical. What I would like to see in the future, is a few more entries dealing with what we do know of the old Stoa. 

Q: Taking on an editorial position is, as you know from previous positions, a considerable amount of work.  What motivated you to volunteer and take on this new position?

A: I used to be the editor of a small student-run philosophical journal affiliated with the University of Oslo. It was a great way to improve my writing, both by writing myself and from reading other people’s texts while trying to help them to get the text as good as possible. I believe that working for Stoicism Today will do the same. Also, I really think that Stoicism Today is a great way to bridge the gap between the ivory towers of academia and people outside of academia and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to closing that gap. While I do think that philosophy sometimes demand an attention to detail and some esoteric exploration that tend to alienate both most people outside of academic philosophy, as well as academic philosophers that are not specialists in the questions that are discussed, I think that philosophy ought to be something that is available to the public, and that academic philosophers should not only publish for the selected few.

Stoicon and Stoicon-x Events this Autumn/Fall 2021

Stoicon Past and Present 

Each year since 2013 we at Modern Stoicism have organized a large public event (Stoicon) to coincide with Stoic Week. We’ve held four in London (2013-15, 2018) and one apiece in New York (2016), Toronto (2017), and Athens (2019). Unsurprisingly we were unable to hold a public event in 2020, so out of necessity we took Stoicon online. This proved to be a great success (even if we say so ourselves!), enabling us to reach a larger and wider audience without the costs and challenges of putting on a large public event, as well as avoiding the environmental impact of having people flying in from various parts of the world to a single event. 

So, we have decided that this year (and probably for a while after) Stoicon will remain online – a single global event accessible to everyone wherever they may be. The event will be free and open to all, although we’ll welcome donations to help cover our costs and support what we do. This is scheduled for 9th October. Tickets will be released nearer the time, but, being online, we should be able to accommodate everyone who wants to join us, so there’s no need to rush to book. 

However, the original idea behind Stoicon was that people following Stoic Week online would actually have a chance to come together and meet face to face because, well, online is a bit impersonal. This is where Stoicon-x now comes to the fore. 

What is Stoicon-x?

Stoicon-x is our concept inspired by Ted-x. These are independently organized events, conceived and run by local groups around the world. In previous years we’ve seen Stoicon-x events taking place in all five continents of the world. They have included events in Alberta, Bogota, Brazil, Brisbane, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Milwaukee, Moscow, New England, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, San Leandro, and Toronto. Now that Stoicon will be online again for 2021, we are all the more keen to encourage local groups to host their own Stoicon-x events. For this Autumn/Fall we are already hearing about preliminary plans for Stoicon-x events in Paris, Melbourne, and London. We hope that there will be many more (depending, of course, on any local Covid restrictions about public gatherings). 

Stoicon-x London, 2017

Stoicon-x events can be pretty much any size or format that you like. It could be anything from a small gathering of 20 people to a large public event of 200 or more. Physical events usually have costs, including venue hire, refreshments, and perhaps expenses for invited speakers, so you’ll probably need to sell tickets to cover those expenses. Tickets should be priced to cover costs only and not to make a profit. In order to use the ‘Stoicon-x’ name we ask people to sign an agreement with us, the Modern Stoicism, Ltd. organization, confirming that events are not-for-profit.  

Organizing a Stoicon-x event

If you might be interested in organizing a local Stoicon-x event, there are some suggestions and guidelines here. The licence agreement can be found here. Our good friends at The Stoic Fellowship have helped out in co-ordinating events around the world and they are in contact with many local Stoic meet-up groups. Do get in touch with them for further advice.  

If you’d like some inspiration and encouragement, you can read here some reports gathered last year from people who successfully organized Stoicon-X events.

The main Stoicon 2021 conference will take place on 9th October. Stoic Week will run 18th-24th October. We anticipate Stoicon-x events throughout October, with some probably taking place in September and November too. As these are face-to-face events in different locations, it doesn’t matter if they happen on the same date – on the contrary, we’d love to see multiple events happening in different cities around the world on the weekends beginning and ending Stoic Week. 

Just to be clear, Stoicon-x events are not run by us at Modern Stoicism; they are run by you, the Stoic community. We don’t control them and so cannot take any liability for them, although we are happy to advertise events here on our website and via our social media channels. If you would like to attend an event, but there isn’t one planned near you, perhaps this is your chance to organize one. Perhaps you could be the first person ever to organize a Stoic event in your city or even your country! 

A Stoic Ghost Tour: George Mackenzie (1636?-1691) by Maximilian Longley

George Mackenzie is the only Stoic philosopher I know of to have acquired a reputation as an evil poltergeist. Many tourists, often under the auspices of ghost-tour enterprises, visit the Grayfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland where his mausoleum – and the nearby prison space for his enemies the Covenanters – are located. Many report that they feel chills, or even get scratched by some invisible entity, who is duly described at the “Mackenzie Poltergeist.” Mackenzie’s wicked spirit has even been blamed for setting fires in properties near the kirkyard.

But whatever the poltergeist may be, if it exists, I am not aware of any proof that it’s George Mackenzie.  Let us go on another kind of “ghost hunt,” looking for the real George Mackenzie and his significant if controversial contributions to Stoicism – as author, statesman, jurist, defender of alleged witches and foe of Presbyterians. George Mackenzie was born in 1636, but perhaps the real year was 1638. Born in Dundee, George went to Aberdeen University and studied law in Bourges, France.

In Edinburgh, around the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne, Mackenzie became a lawyer. He also published a bad novel, Aretina. He married in 1662. The young lawyer promptly received an important assignment from the royal government. The prisons were filling to bursting with suspected witches. Doubtful of many of these accusations but determined to clear the court dockets, the Privy Council sent Mackenzie and others as judges into the supposedly witch-plagued areas to resolve the numerous charges. Mackenzie examined witchcraft cases in Lothian where men and women – but mostly women – had been kept in prison in dismal conditions, and often subjected to illegal torture (for legal torture, see below). One woman told Mackenzie that she had confessed to being a witch because, locked up and deserted by everyone, she had despaired of her life and confessed in hopes she would be executed. Mackenzie helped release innocent suspects, and the skepticism of royal officials like Mackenzie helped stop the witch-panic.

Mackenzie unsuccessfully represented the Duke of Argyll, an alleged traitor from the period of the civil wars, and did his best though he and his colleagues faced possible treason charges themselves if they were overzealous. Agryll was executed – but at least the lawyers were spared.

In 1663, while busy with his legal practice, Mackenzie published Religio Stoici, With a Friendly Addresse to the Phanaticks of all Sects and Sorts. The “phanaticks” Mackenzie had in mind were the ultra-Presbyterians, many of them “Covenanters” who wanted to establish a Presbyterian polity, at least in Scotland (and ideally in England and Ireland as well). This agenda put the Presbyterians at odds with King Charles, who imposed an episcopal form of church government – a Protestant church managed by royally-appointed bishops. The Presbyterians wanted the church governed by meetings of pious ministers and elders independent of (and potentially hostile to) the king.

In addition to the turbulence of the late civil wars, Mackenzie may have been influenced, in his views of the “phanaticks,” by the recent witch-panic, when Presbyterian ministers would often meet with the suspects in prison and pressure them to admit having dealings with the devil.

Human beings were so arrogant, wrote Mackenzie in Religio Stoici, that they would be inclined to be atheists, had not a “natural instinct” made men acknowledge a God higher than themselves. Mackenzie quoted an unnamed “wise Stoick” as declaring that “it were impossible to live in a world void of God, and void of providence.” The Stoics were “were in all pro[ba]bility a tribe of John Baptist’s,” preparing the way for Christ. “And certainly, if men had disbanded that execrable troup of Lusts, against which [the Stoics] preached, and had listnd (as the Stoicks Book of Discipline enjoyned) to their own private consciences, and had by retiredness abstracted themselves from the reach of temptations, it had facilitated much their conversion.” Stoicism could have taught the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22) to despise riches, and would have led the rich Dives to avoid the gluttony which brought him to hell (Luke 16:19-31). Nicodemus (John 3:2-21), if he had been a Stoic, would have approached Jesus publicly, not secretly, despite the risk of punishment – the Stoic “doctrine might have taught [Nicodemus], that fear was a passion unworthy to be lodged in the soul of man: And that there is nothing here [on earth] which a man either should, or needeth, to fear.” (pp. 2, 10, 12-13, 15-16).

Why, Mackenzie wondered, were ultra-Presbyterians so obsessed with the details of regulating religion? God’s “decrees of saving or damning [the world’s] citizens, is a trade we shall never be able to practice: why should we have such an itch to understand it?” Mackenzie rejected the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination by which man had no choice in whether he was saved or damned. To Mackenzie it was more consistent both with Christianity and Stoicism to view creation as comparable to a watch – the maker (God) allowed it the most part to run on, while intervening occasionally to fix it (miracles). To the Stoic, such a doctrine fits best with good philosophy, “because it pulls the hand of the sluggard from his bosome, and sets them awork to prepare for himself, and not to repose his unreasonable hopes upon divine providence.” (pp. 21, 27, 31-33) (William Paley’s much-abused watch would be invoked for a different purpose than Mackenzie’s timepiece).

“These embodyed angels; the Stoicks,” recognized that mere fortune and fate could not be resisted, so they “slighted” fortune” and “submitted to” fate, thus gaining “a calmness of spirit” in spite of “external accidents.” (p. 36) So Mackenzie’s views of free will seemed complicated, but in any case were opposed to those of the Presbyterians.

Despite superficial differences, wrote Mackenzie, all Christians were of “one religion,” and “Speculations in Religion are not so necessary, and are more dangerous than sincere practice.” Believers should have faith in Christ and do good deeds, and as for those details “not absolutely necessary to being saved” people should recognize whichever practices were imposed by law in the established church. (pp. 40-45, 51-52, 86-87, 141)

Mackenzie appeared to depart a little from Stoicism in a book he first published in 1665, in which he urged the readers to shun public life and live in rural solitude. While there were Senecan precedents for philosophical retirement, especially for elderly philosophers and those facing a government they could not in good conscience work for (Margaret Graves and A. A. Long (ed. and trans), Seneca Letters on Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 70, 71, 74, 79, 80, 204, 539-40), Mackenzie seemed to go further, praising retirement for its own sake. Almost as a reluctant concession, Mackenzie allowed for public service for those summoned to duty for their country, but rejected government service as a life plan (Mackenzie, Solitude, 103-06). In all this, Mackenzie seemed to come closer to the Epicureans, with their distrust of public life, than to the Stoics (Eugene O’Connor, ed. and trans., The Essential Epicurus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 64-66, 71, 72, 81, 83, 84, 101). But if Mackenzie was Epic-curious, it did not keep him out of public life.

Returning to more recognizably Stoic themes in his 1667 book Moral Gallantry, Mackenzie sought to appeal to the nobles and gentry of Scotland with the argument that virtue was honorable and that vice was “mean” (dishonorable). The nobles had a strong sense of aristocratic honor, but Mackenzie complained this was a mistaken idea of honor, where the nobles contended for position and lived grandly at their creditors’ expense. To bring the nobles into a more correct sense of honor, Mackenzie proposed not to merely repeat Stoic precepts, but to show how these precepts fit with the nobles’ own aristocratic prejudices. Not only could the nobles themselves be led down the path to virtue, the lower orders would be encouraged to follow the nobles’ example. (pp. 16-17, 19)

Here is Mackenzie’s argument against vindictiveness, aimed at an aristocratic audience: “It is one of the most picquant revenges to undervalue our enemies so far, as not to think them worth our noticeing.” (pp. 130-31)

Similarly, virtue would help a nobleman seeking political advancement. Who would “cabal” with an untrustworthy man? Fame could best be attained by virtuous deeds – “who can so justly expect universal praise, as these who design universal advantage?” (pp. 33, 36, 38, 112-13)

Vice involved the most un-aristocratic failing imaginable: “fear…that unmanly passion.” A brave man would rather suffer than be a coward or a liar. (pp. 46-47, 56-57)

More vices were listed, as well as their “mean” attributes: vanity (falsehood), envy (sneakiness), Adultery and fornication (earning criticism from one’s own servants), greed (serving riches, even though a man’s riches should be his servant) (pp. 49-50, 60-61, 64, 82-88, 118-21).

Mackenzie gave considerable attention to the vice of drunkenness, which he seemed to consider a particular problem with the nobility. Proof that drunken carousing was “mean” was that nobles were afraid to be seen at their revels by their own servants, and that the expense of drunken parties wasted the reveler’s estate. (pp. 102-08)

Don’t be arrogant in good fortune or angry when fortune deserts you, Mackenzie advised his readers, because it is “more gallant to bear adversity with a generous courage, than to be a fool or flattered by prosperity, which vanquishes as oft, those for whom, as those against whom, it fights.” Don’t be proud of “Estates and Territories,” since Pompey gave kingdoms to his slaves “yet Epictetus, who was a slave, is more admired, than” Pompey. Any man has the world and the “glorious heavens” available to him, while “the meanest beggar pours out his excrements” on the estates of the wealthy. (pp. 121-22)

Mackenzie reached an unadorned Stoic conclusion: “Vertue and true Honor teacheth us to subject our interest to our selves, and puts it in our own power to make our selves happy.” If you “brave[]” suffering, you show that only guilt can make you tremble, not the vicissitudes of fortune. (pp. 129 ff.)

Mackenzie served for a while in the Scottish Parliament (Scotland and England had a common king but separate Parliaments). Here Mackenzie was part of the opposition group centered around the Duke of Hamilton. Being in the opposition in this Parliament generally involved being part of an ineffectual minority, protesting royal measures. Mackenzie protested unfair taxes and tax policies, royal monopolies on salt, brandy and tobacco, and unjust court procedures. When the Parliament approved negotiations for a Union between England and Scotland, Mackenzie vainly sought safeguards to prevent England from swallowing up its poorer neighbor in any Union deal. (Negotiations were in any case dropped and no Union would be agreed to until 1707, after Mackenzie’s death).

The Earl of Lauderdale, the King’s minister in Scotland, pursued a double-minded policy regarding the Presbyterians. On the one hand, some royally-approved Presbyterian clergy were allowed to minister to their congregations. But without such an “indulgence,” preachers and laity who defied the bishops faced the government’s wrath. Illegal Presbyterian meetings were styled “Conventicles” and subject to punishment. Landlords who allowed their tenants to attend conventicles faced fines, while the ministers and parishioners faced forced labor in the Crown’s overseas colonies.

Mackenzie continued to deplore the religious divisions of his country. About 200 Presbyterian ministers had been purged in the early 1660s, and, as Mackenzie saw it, this had unnecessarily alienated the parishioners and “join’d them all in one common discontent.” Mackenzie still saw some good signs in the religious gloom, as Robert Leighton, bishop of Dunblane and then archbishop of Glasgow, “drew many into Episcopacy, by his exemplary life, rather than debates….His great principle was, that devotion was the great affair about which churchmen should employ themselves; and that the gaining of souls, and not the external government, was their proper talk” (Mackenzie, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, pp. 77-78, 161-62). Leighton seemed to embody the religious broad-mindedness Mackenzie had preached in Religio Stoici. Sadly for Mackenzie’s hopes, there were not a lot of Leightons prominent on either side.

The Pentland Rising, a Covenanter revolt in 1666, was suppressed, and several participants were tried for treason. Mackenzie was the lawyer for some of the defendants, and asked the court to spare the rebels’ lives because they had allegedly been promised to be spared if they surrendered. No such consideration was granted, and Mackenzie’s clients were executed.

In 1668, after the death of his first wife and some of his children, an ailing Mackenzie wrote a friend about his remaining children’s inheritance if he died. “Think me not apprehensive but cautious in this,” he wrote, “for truly I fear not death now in the least. My thoughts are, God be praised, very much of my Maker, and I live as much out of duty as inclination” (Lang, 77-78). He remarried soon thereafter, and acquired the lands of Rosehaugh, which gave him a title as well.

In the mid-1670s, Mackenzie went over from the opposition to support of the royal government. Such switches of allegiance were common in Restoration-era politics, and raised suspicions of opportunism. Were such suspicions fair to Mackenzie? Let us look at his own account of how he came to switch. The chief royal minister in Scotland, Lauderdale, agreed to free Scotland from the onerous monopolies on brandy, salt, and tobacco, but Mackenzie claims to have been shocked to find that the Opposition did not welcome this move, being more interested in using the issue of the monopoly to get Lauderdale out of power than in actually alleviating the burdens of the people.

Mackenzie also alleged a personal betrayal by his opposition friends. Along with other lawyers in Scotland, he wanted the Scottish Parliament, not the king’s courts, to have final jurisdiction in law cases. But King Charles banned parliamentary appeals. While the Scottish lawyers were figuring out how to deal with this development, Mackenzie claims he discovered a plot to break solidarity and leave him (Mackenzie) to suffer alone in the controversy. Opposition figures were supposedly implicated in this betrayal. Mackenzie decided to accept the king’s order regarding appeals – Mackenzie believed it was appropriate to submit to his legitimate king. Fear of civil war was in the air, and Mackenzie thus had another reason to drift into the government’s orbit, given his hatred of fratricidal conflict. Mackenzie grew friendlier with Lauderdale until the latter had Mackenzie appointed as King’s Advocate – roughly the Attorney General or chief prosecutor of Scotland – in 1677.

A year into his new job, Mackenzie published The laws and customes of Scotland, in matters criminal, which became an influential legal commentary. In the section of the book dealing with witchcraft, Mackenzie made use of the knowledge he had acquired as a judge in witchcraft cases and from reading historical accounts of other witchcraft trials. He said witchcraft did in fact exist – after all, both the Bible and the Scottish criminal code prohibited it – but “from the horridness of this Crime, I do conclude, that of all Crimes it requires the clearest relevancy, and most convincing probation. And I condemn, next to the witches themselves, these cruel and too forward judges who burn persons by the thousand as guilty of this crime.”  Mackenzie deplored abuses such as mass arrests, supervision of the trial process by people without legal training, the illegal torture of suspects, and unduly-credulous acceptance of confessions potentially produced by torture or despair. Mackenzie censured the “Prickers” who offered to stick pins into suspects’ flesh, in hopes of discovering a “devil’s mark.” The whole thing was a “meer cheat,” said Mackenzie, citing a “Pricker” who had been arrested for unrelated crimes and admitted that his supposed expertise was bogus. (pp. 91-92)

Mackenzie also called for rejection of any testimony about witches supposedly changing shape or flying through the air, which he proclaimed impossible (without God’s assistance, which of course would not be afforded to witches). (pp. 80 ff) Putting his teachings into practice, Mackenzie, on the government’s behalf, dismissed charges against four alleged witches in 1680. It is likely that the influence of Mackenzie’s treatise contributed to the abatement of Scottish witch-panics.

The Episcopalian-versus-Presbyterian issue came to a head after Mackenzie took office, and the new King’s Advocate gave his support to the government’s policy of repression. The militant Presbyterians increasingly met in menacing outdoor Conventicles, bearing arms to fend off government attackers. Mackenzie recalled later that dignitaries in the rebellion-prone west advised that the only way to peacefully address the problem in the region was by abolishing the Episcopal establishment. To Mackenzie and the government, thus “Sacrificing the Laws to the Humours [whims] and Passions of private Men” would be to embolden the Presbyterians with concessions, going down the road which had led the previous king (Charles I) to surrender his prerogative and then lose his head (Mackenzie, A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II, p. 12). Mackenzie considered the Presbyterian “fanaticks” dangerous on political not theological grounds, given their devotion to the Covenant to impose Presbyterianism by force. And now they were meeting in arms to defy the established order, threatening a renewal of civil war.

To subdue the discontented areas by force, the government sent soldiers from the Highlands to live on the property of dissenting landlords. Persistent dissenters were again sent to the colonies. A radical faction of Covenanters, known as Cameronians, declared war on the government, and an assassination plot led to the killing of Archbishop James Sharp of Glasgow. Goaded into rebellion, the Covenanters were defeated with the help of English troops at the June 21, 1679 battle of Bothwell Bridge.

About 1,400 prisoners from this battle were brought to Edinburgh, and held for trial in a portion of what later became Grayfriars Kirkyard. The prisoners were held on huts, where conditions were, says historian Ian B. Cowan, “almost” better than conditions in regular prisons (Cowan, pp. 99-102). The prisoners were held during the summer months, not for the lengthy periods Mackenzie had earlier observed with witchcraft suspects. All but 300 pledged not to rebel again and were released. The stubborn 300 were put on a ship for servitude in Barbados, but the prison ship sank in Scottish waters and fewer than 40 people survived.

Mackenzie obtained an opinion from the leading judges of Scotland that anyone suspected of supporting the Cameronian terrorists could be ordered to disavow the group’s pro-assassination manifesto on pain of death. By this procedure, soldiers sometimes shot defiant Cameronians on the spot – earning this era the sobriquet of the “Killing Times.” Even if Presbyterian dissenters did not belong to the small Cameronian sect, fines and colonial servitude were still invoked. Mackenzie superintended the prosecution of several defendants in murder and treason cases during this period, and his biographer Andrew Lang found that the King’s Advocate sometimes cut legal corners to get convictions, and in several instances went along with the torture of suspects (Lang, pp. 194-202, 235-74). To be legal, torture required the approval of the Scottish Parliament or Privy Council. There were only 39 approved uses of torture in the 100-year period ending in 1690, and Mackenzie shared responsibility for some of this handful.

Donald Cargil, the only surviving Cameronian minister, published a decree in September 1680 purporting to excommunicate King Charles and his Scottish ministers, including Mackenzie. In describing the crimes for which Mackenzie was “deliver[ed] up to Satan,” Cargil not only listed the persecution of “the people of God,” but also Mackenzie’s “pleading for Sorcerers, Murderers, and other Criminals.” Finally, Cargil’s proclamation condemned Mackenzie “for his ungodly, erroneous, phantastick and blasphemous Tenets printed to the world in his Pamphlets and Pasquills” – in other words, Mackenzie’s published works (Cargil, pp. 15-16). Mackenzie may be the only Stoic author to be put on the equivalent of a religious hit list for his books (Cargil was executed in 1681).

1684 marked the publication of two treatises by Mackenzie. There was The institutions of the law of Scotland, which would become another of Mackenzie’s influential legal treatises. The other 1684 work was Jus Regium, a defense of monarchical government, opposing Presbyterian theorists who justified revolt against kings. Mackenzie wrote that neither the people nor the Kirk (Church) could hold the king accountable for alleged wrongdoing – only God could do that. Mackenzie acknowledged that there was a danger that a king might be a tyrant, though the fear of rebellion (even though rebellion was always wrong) might keep a tyrant in check. In any case, it was better to submit prayerfully to the rule of a tyrannical king than to rebel and bring on the far worse evils of civil war. Mackenzie also defended the unqualified right of the Catholic James Duke of York, brother to King Charles (who had no legitimate children) to inherit the crown.

With Charles’ death in 1685, the Duke of York became King James VII (known as James II in England). Mackenzie lost his job in 1686 when, along with the Scots Parliament, he refused to let Catholics worship openly or hold office, as the Catholic James wanted. While back at work as a private lawyer, Mackenzie represented several clients accused of participating as rebels at Bothwell Bridge, and got all but one acquitted. Then Mackenzie got his government job back, only to lose it again as William of Orange, military leader of the Dutch, invaded England and provoked a revolt against James in Scotland as well. When a Scottish revolutionary convention declared William III the new king, Mackenzie was one of a handful who attended the convention and voted against the measure. Since Mackenzie was hearing rumors of his own planned assassination, and was in any case anxious about suffering retaliatory prosecution from his enemies under a change of regime, his opposition vote took some courage.

But Mackenzie thought it the better part of valor to leave Scotland altogether after the convention, posting letters on the way to prominent people – avowing his peaceful intentions toward the new order of things. He feared retaliation from the enemies he had made as King’s Advocate: “I punisht crimes but committed none & yet I will not return [to Scotland] till things be setld, for others may want [lack] justice tho’ I want not innocencie” (Lang, 303). He even professed a willingness to live in Holland – the home ground of the new king – but he ended up stopping at the University of Oxford, England, instead – an institution sympathetic to monarchists like himself.

Mackenzie had finally reached the quiet retirement he had preached in the mid-1660s. Far from being idle, he took up his pen to write his two final published works. First was A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II – Mackenzie blamed the Presbyterian Covenanters as the aggressors (see, e. g., pp. 3-4, 8-9, 25-26). Finally Mackenzie wrote one more Stoic work, published just after his death in 1691. The Moral History of Frugality urged readers to be content with what wealth they had, and if they had a large amount, to use it to help others. Mackenzie observed that frugality had been praised by the Stoics, Pythagoras, “and even Epicurus himself.” This providentially paved the way for Christ, since the pagan public grew accustomed to the pagan philosophers’ objections to the sins Christ condemned. Mackenzie commended the Quakers as exemplars of frugality. Luxury – living large and buying vanities for oneself – was a vice which harmed the public. “I think there would be no Poor were it not for luxury and Avarice, for all would have somewhat, and none would have too much.” (pp. 12-13, 25-27, 84, 95) So Mackenzie’s parting advice, as he left this world, was to live simply so that others could simply live. Curious behavior for an alleged future poltergeist.


  • Donald Cargil, Torwood Excommunication (Posthumously published 1741, no place of publication given)
  • Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters 1660-1688 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976)
  • Epicurus (Eugene O’Connor, ed. and trans.), The Essential Epicurus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993)
  • Andrew Lang, Sir George Mackenzie King’s Advocate, of Rosehaugh His Life and Times 1636(?)-1691 (London: Longman’s, Green and Company, 1909)
  • The works of George Mackenzie can be found by doing a bibliographic search at Early English Books Online,
  • George Mackenzie, Institutions of the Laws of Scotland (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1684)
  • ____, Jus regium, or, The just, and solid foundations of monarchy in general, and more especially of the monarchy of Scotland : maintain’d against Buchannan, Naphthali, Dolman, Milton, &c. (Edinburgh: 1684)
  • ___, The laws and customes of Scotland, in matters criminal wherein is to be seen how the civil law, and the laws and customs of other nations do agree with, and supply ours (Edinburgh: James Glen, 1678)
  • ___, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland from the Accession of King Charles II (Edinburgh, 1821 (posthumous)
  • ___, A Moral Essay, Preferring Solitude to Public Employment, and all it’s Appanages, such as fame, Command, Riches, Pleasure, Conversation, &c. (Edinburgh: Robert Brown, 1666 [2nd edition]), in George Mackenzie, John Evelyn, Brian Vickers (ed.), Public and Private Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Mackenzie-Evelyn Debate (Delmar, NY: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1986), 1-122
  • ___, The Moral History of Frugality (London: Printed for J. Hindmarsh, 1691)
  • ___, Moral Gallantry, a discourse, wherein the author endeavors to prove, that point of honor (abstracting from all other tyes) oblige ment o be virtuous and that there is nothing so mean (or unworthy of a gentle mind) as vice. Edinburgh: Printed for Robert Brown, 1667
  • ___, Religio Stoici (Edinburgh: R. Broun, 1665
  • ___, A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II. Against Misrepresentations in Several Scandalous Pamphlets (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1712 [reprint of 1691 London edition])
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Margaret Graves and A. A. Long, ed. and trans), Seneca Letters on Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War, and numerous articles in print and online.