How to Think Like Musonius Rufus (And Memorize His Lectures) by Kevin Vost

“Remember…” – Epictetus[1]

“And now for something completely different…” – Monty Python

From Ready at Hand to Ever in Mind

Arrian compiled the condensed Enchiridion (Manual or Handbook) from Epictetus’s Discourses so that readers could have easy access to many of Epictetus’s fundamental Stoic insights, keeping them always ready at hand when needed them (indeed, in the size of a book that would easily fit in one’s hand, or within a modern-day pocket).  In the short 10th chapter of that Handbook Epictetus explains that whatever difficult life situations we face we need to ask ourselves what capacities we have developed to deal with them, calling into play our self-control when confronted with a beautiful body, our endurance to deal with hardship, or our patience if someone insults or abuses us.  The lessons of that very Handbook,  if studied, mastered, and internalized, can help us develop and display those and a host of other capacities or virtues.

In that same chapter, Epictetus instructs us to remember to turn to ourselves to activate these capacities and to habituate ourselves, to get used to doing this.  Indeed, by my count, Epictetus uses words translated into English as “remember,” or “keep in mind,” at least a dozen times in the 53 brief chapters of the Handbook.   In his Discourses, Epictetus reminds his students that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show their shepherds how much they have eaten, but they chew and digest that grass and then produce wool and milk of their own.  It is through remembering fundamental Stoic principles, and becoming habituated to using them in our own daily lives that we will produce the wool and milk of lives lived well, with a good flow, fulfilling through virtuous thoughts and deeds our capacities as rational human beings.

In this article, I will propose the use of a simple and effective memory method that can help us follow Epictetus’s advice to “remember” essential Stoic principles. Epictetus certainly remembered the principles he learned from his great teacher Musonius Rufus, and here we will apply the memory method to recall the gist of one fundamental lesson of each of Rufus’s lectures, a workable task, since only 21 lectures are extant, as presented in Stobaeus’s 5th century AD Anthology. We will examine and actually employ a technique that can keep Stoic principles not only ready at hand, but ever in mind.

Something Different: Memory Training as Spiritual Exercise (and a Part of Prudence)

Mental or spiritual exercises have long been essential to Stoicism, to not merely understand it as a philosophical system, but to employ it as an art of living. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations have been a prime example of Stoic spiritual exercises practiced through writing notes to oneself.  Many of Aurelius’s exercises involve powerfully focused use of one’s memory and imagination, from seeing things from a historical perspective and recalling how emperors from the distant past and all who lived in their time are no more, to mentally viewing the whole of the earth from a perspective of one high above it.

Now, the memory method I will describe is also heavily dependent upon the power of imagination, and in ancient texts, it is called an “inner writing.”  This method is certainly nothing new, usually being attributed, as it was by Cicero, to a discovery and invention by Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BC).  Many readers have probably encountered it as the “method of loci” or “memory palace” technique, and some may see it as a gimmick of sorts to produce ostensibly impressive memory feats of questionable utility. (Some experts, for example, have used the method to recall the digits of pi, with a current world record of 100,000 digits!)

As to the “completely different” aspect of this ages-old method, I don’t ever recall seeing it suggested or applied as a form of Stoic spiritual exercise, whereby one can take Epictetus’s advice quite literally and train oneself to systematically remember key Stoic principles, not merely to echo them back like a parrot, but to hold them in mind so as to digest them like a lamb and eventually produce some grade A milk and wool!

We will soon apply the method to the gist of some lessons from Musonius Rufus. Readers who know him will certainly recall his emphasis on the four cardinal virtues of sophrosyne, andreia, phronesis, and diakaiosyne  (or temperance, courage, prudence, and justice).  Interestingly, thinkers including Cicero in the first century BC, and Saints Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century AD, have argued that memory itself is an essential “part” of the virtue of phronesis or prudence, the practical wisdom we use to make the best choices in the acts of our daily lives. 

How so? Cicero described three essential “parts” or allied capacities of prudence as memory, understanding, and foresight, for to conceive of and achieve virtuous goals in the future (requiring foresight), we must act in the present (applying our powers of  understanding to current situations), guided by the lessons we have learned in the past (retained through memory).

Further, Cicero and St. Albert considered memory the most important part of prudence. Why? Per St. Albert: “When we say that of all those things that point toward ethical wisdom, the most necessary is a trained memory, because from past events we are guided in the present and the future, and not from the converse.”[2]  Note too that Albert refers to a “trained” memory, and he also states elsewhere that the method described by “Tully,” (Cicero) is the best. This is the age-old method of loci or locations that involves the use of visual imagery in a systematic order.

The oldest extant book on the subject, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, dates from the mid- 80s BC and was long attributed to Cicero. Though modern scholars do not believe Cicero wrote it, its method is also discussed in Cicero’s authentic De Inventione, which includes the fascinating story of how  Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-468 BC) came by to invent it. Though a few different versions of have come down to us, here is the gist of the story.

A wealthy man named Scopas invited Simonides to give an oration at a banquet one evening.  Simonides acknowledged his thanks to Scopas and during the recitation of a poem honoring a boxer he also expressed thanks to the twin gods Castor and Pollux who were popularly considered as patrons of athletes. Well, during a break, the ungracious Scopas told Simonides that since he thanked him and Castor and Pollux as well, he would pay him only half his fee and he could collect the other half from Castor and Pollux!

A short while later, Simonides was told that two young men had come to a door and said he was needed for an emergency.  As Simonides left the building, he saw the young men far down the street and ran after them.  He never could catch them and eventually returned to the building, after what amount to an extended wild goose chase. While he was away, however, the roof of the building had collapsed. So complete was the destruction that the bodies of the diners were crushed beyond recognition. Simonides discovered, to his surprise, that from his perspective as orator he could recall the visual image of where every person reclined and could identify them all. As the story goes, who were those two young men? Precisely. Castor and Pollux! And they paid him not only by saving his life but by leading to his invention of the methods of “artificial memory.”

Simonides discovered through this incident the power of visual impressions and of orderly arrangement as aids to the natural memory. Further, he soon came to realize that we do not need to see orderly arrangements of visual information to enhance our memory powers. Indeed, we need merely imagine them. This systematic use of visual images and a series of locations became the gist of “artificial memory,” or “the art of memory,” which employs our powers of imaginative visualization, reason, and language capacities to perfect our natural, non-strategic memory capacities. Indeed, viewed from a Stoic perspective, such memory methods could entail a revised impression of our own memory capacities, moving them from what we might have considered outside of our control to something within our control, for some to a surprising extent.

Over 1,700 years later, Thomas Aquinas summarized the gist of this method into four essential elements, which are the use of

1) visual images,

2) a system of orderly arrangement,

3) focused concentration, and

4) rehearsal or repetition.[3]

We already know the power of the 3rd and 4th elements since they are essential to most tasks employing natural memory, and they continue to play an important role when employing the art of memory. Thomas also explained (borrowing much of his cognitive psychology from Aristotle) that visual images should be used because all of our knowledge begins with information that comes in from our senses and visual images tend to be most powerful and memorable for most people. Further, he pointed out that even abstract or “spiritual” information is best held in memory when it is represented by a concrete, “corporeal” image that is easily pictured in the minds’ eye. Indeed, he also noted that we should make such memory images strange and unusual since we encounter so much information every day that we tend to forget what is mundane or routine.

As for orderly arrangement, among the possible ordered location systems mentioned in the ancient Ad Herennium itself, our most ancient book on the art of memory, the first one mentioned is that of a house. So, at last, I welcome you now to a modern house of memory! Note well, that for dramatic effect we will first memorize a series of locations and their associated images and then I’ll explain what they mean. So, please set your powers of imagination and concentration on high and I’ll guide you through the rest.

Memorize the Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve just arrived at someone’s house for the first time. (It’s a sprawling ranch home in an older neighborhood surrounded by mature maples and oaks.) You ring the bell, the front door opens (location 1), and to your dismay, an ancient philosopher greets you, points a giant needle at your chest, and asks, “Do you get my point?” (You surmise he’s a philosopher by his cloak and beard. Further, the cloak’s monogram “M.R.” leads you to suspect it is Musonius Rufus himself!)

Alright, he invites you inside and you carefully step on an open spot in a doormat (location 2) that is otherwise covered with seeds that quickly sprout plants shaped into V’s.  

Next, you glance out through a glass panel next to the front door (location 3), and there you see in the front yard Socrates conducting a dialogue with a group of women.

Upon the wall on the other side of the front door you see a portrait of your own parents (location 4), but upon closer inspection your parents’ image fades away and you see a schoolroom filled with young girls.

On the adjacent wall, oddly enough, you spy a gun rack[4] (location 5), and balancing precariously on top of it is an old-fashioned scale with a “P” in one saucer and a “T” in the other. You notice the scales tips down on the side of the “P.”

Okay, do you have those five locations and images down pat now?  If not, take a look at this simple summary chart, and test yourself further by seeing if you can repeat the sequence backwards, from the scales with the P and T at the fifth location, the portrait of the parents that fades into a classroom of girls at the fourth, Socrates and the women seen through the glass panel at the third location, the doormat with seeds sprouting V-shape plants at the second location, and that crusty old philosopher, perhaps Rufus himself, asking if we get his point at the front door.

LocationsImages
1.  Front doorRufus with giant needle
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’s
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with women
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girls
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs T

Got them? Good.  Let’s progress a little further before we examine what all this means.

 Moving along to the center of the foyer at location 6, you spy the oddest sight so far, for a large human biceps and a human brain are both (somehow) lifting weights.

Looking overhead at the chandelier (location 7) you see and hear an unfamiliar man crying “Ouch!” 

Glancing across the foyer at a mirror on the wall (location 8), you see not your own reflection, but that of a crowned king.

Under the mirror sits a small cushioned bench (location 9), and you see sitting upon it a smiling man perched on a rock surrounded by water

Finally, built into the cushioned bench are a couple of drawers (location 10). You open a drawer, and to your dismay out pops a lawyer saying that you’re being sued.   Got those? If not, please mentally rehearse the scene a time or two, and feel free to look at this summary chart and at the foyer illustration as well.

LocationsImages
6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain lifting
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”
8.  MirrorKing
9.  BenchSmiling man on rock
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at you

Now, assuming you’ve got them, let’s see what you’ve got.  At the front door (location 1), we imagined Rufus with the needle asking if you got his point. This silly and hopefully memorable image appeared at location 1 as a simple reminder of the theme of Rufus’s lecture 1: “the lecture showing that one does not need to use many arguments to prove one point”[5]

The seeds upon the door mat (location 2), will help us recall a central theme from Rufus’s second lecture: “the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” The “V” shape of the plants was our simple reminder of virtue.  Most of these images and the themes they represent are pretty straightforward, with perhaps the exception of our scales at location 5. The “P” and the “T” were used to represent Practice and Theory.  Per Musonius, both are needed, but practice outweighs theory.

So then, if you have recalled our first ten images, you have also memorized one key theme from each of Rufus first ten lectures, in their exact order. (They are spelled out in a summary chart near the end of this article.)  To borrow some metaphors from Rufus’s first two lectures, merely one image can be sufficient not to prove, but to recall one important lesson. And more to the point, these little mnemonic images are like the little seeds that can, with habituation through additional practice and study, grow into richer retention and comprehension of each lecture that they summarize. 

For example, we pictured Socrates with women in our third location because in his third lecture Rufus argues, contrary to many thinkers of his time, that women should indeed study philosophy. It is in this lesson that he first spells out the four cardinal virtues of prudence, self-control, courage, and justice. If you do not have them memorized already, you could simply add to that scene something along the lines of the images of a persnickety old woman named Prudence (perhaps with three faces to gaze at the future, present, and past), a woman with a remote control that moves her own limbs, the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, and a Supreme Court Justice to represent those four cardinal virtues. 

If you would care to memorize some of Rufus’ own examples of these virtues as lived out in the lives of women, picture Prudence managing a household, the remote control making the woman remove herself from an improper sexual temptation, the cowardly lion as a female lioness working up her courage to protect her children from attack, and the Supreme Court Justice refusing to do anything wrong.

Further, if you should read and study Rufus’s lessons repeatedly over time, you will find that even the one simple image provided for each lecture will trigger in your mind additional content from each lecture through natural memory processes, serving somewhat like a key that will open the lectures to you. This will also allow you, when you have time on your hands but nothing to do or read (e.g., waiting at doctor’s offices, airports, etc.), to call to mind your memory tour and see how much of the detail from each lecture your images can call to mind.

 Please note that the images I have provided are merely suggestions, somewhat arbitrary mnemonic reminders based on the first associations that pop into my head as I read Rufus’ lectures. Images you create for yourself can be even more powerful, since they resonate more directly with your own knowledge base and experiences. And indeed, the same applies to systems of locations. What house do you know better than your own? Please feel free to construct you own personalized “memory mansion” if you prefer.

Note well too that the location system itself is like an internal notepad or word processing template.  Once you have mastered a set of locations through repeated practice, you can mentally “write” anything you’d like on the same locations and use them over and over again ad infinitum crafting new images as the “ink” to write down in your mind completely new sets of materials. You could use it for something as mundane as your grocery list, having perhaps a giant banana greet you at the front door, tripping over a sack of potatoes on the door mat, and so forth. 

But you have a different list each week? No problem. Recall that repetition is essential to these methods. If you do not rehearse your lists, they will fade away.  Information that is important enough to maintain, like the lessons of Rufus, are worth the time to repeat and contemplate as Stoic exercises, and the more often they are repeated, the more firmly they will be stored in your long-term memory.    

 I should also note that from its earliest days in the Greece of Simonides and the Rome of Cicero, this method was used primarily by pubic speakers to deliver their orations without any kind of text or notes.  They would not memorize their talks word-for-word, a very demanding and tedious process that could easily be derailed during delivery.  Rather, they would use locations to memorize the kind the key points of their orations in their exact order, leaving them free to speak spontaneously and never lose track of where they are.

In fact, as the author of books on memory, I pretty much feel obligated to use this method myself for every public talk I give, usually using the same house supplied in this article (with its six rooms of 60 locations in total.) In a talk of an hour’s length, I might have 40 or more key points I want to make. Using this method, after outlining the points on paper or on a screen, I visualize them in their proper places in the house. After a few minutes of study and rehearsal, I could literally give my talks backwards, from conclusion to introduction, though I’ve yet to find a proper occasion to do that!

Knowing that I could deliver them backwards makes every talk an enjoyable challenge, and is by far, my method of choice. (In fact, this very article idea came to me as I began to memorize these lectures myself for an upcoming Practical Stoicism podcast on Musonius Rufus.)  I should note too that different sets of information stored in memory houses tend to “hang together” well due to the natural power of association. Indeed, at times I have given two different talks in the same day using the same locations to literally house two completely separate sets of information.

 So, if you would care to dig deeper into the memory method, and deeper into the lessons of the lectures of Musonius Rufus, I have suggested below some possible images for all of the 21 lectures, along with some additional memory room illustrations that have appeared in some of my memory books. Note too that the effort and practice required to use this method can provide nice side benefits of its, enhancing one’s powers of mental discipline, concentration, and increased freedom from extraneous distractions.

I hope that if you give the method a try you will find some of Rufus’s fundamental Stoic lessons always at hand, ever in mind, and read to put into practice, again, and again, and again.

Musonius Lectures Mnemonic Summary

LocationMnemonic ImageLecture Theme
1.  Front doorRufus with giant needleUse few, effective arguments to get points across.
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’sAll of us possess the seeds of virtue.
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with womenWomen should also study philosophy.
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girlsDaughters should be educated like sons.
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs TPractice outweighs theory.
6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain liftingTrain both body and mind.
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”What to make of pain.
8.  MirrorKingEven kings need philosophy.
9.  BenchSmiling man on rockExile is not evil.
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at youDon’t sue over for personal insults.
11.  Center of living roomFarmer hoes your floorFarming as good occupation for a philosopher
12.  Back yardXXX red light districtAppropriate  and inappropriate sexual behaviors
13.  CouchWedding ceremonyThe chief purposes of marriage
14.  Coffee tableXanthippe soaks SocratesWhy marriage is proper for philosophers
15.   TelevisionBabies grow fast on screenAll babies born should be raised.
16.   FireplaceYour father lectures youHow we honor and obey our parents
17.  Doorway out living roomWorld’s oldest manThe best thing for old age (philosophy)
18.  Doorway in dining roomFeast laid out on floorVirtue and the exercise of self-control in eating.
19.  ChairFavorite shoes and clothesHow should a philosopher dress?
20.  Center of tableModel of your houseHow should a philosopher furnish his house?
21.  Wall thermometerLong beard hanging down from its bottomTo shave or not to shave? (And why is that important?)

Illustrations by Ted Schluenderfritz.

[1] Epictetus, The Handbook (The Encheiridion), Nicholas P. White, trans. (Hackett: Indianapolis, IN, 1983), Handbook chapters 1, 2, 3,10, 15, 17, 20, 32, 33, 36, 42, 46.

[2] From De Bono (On the Good), cited in Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 275.

[3] Summa Theologica, II-II, 49, 1 “Whether Memory is a Part of Prudence?”

[4] I first used this memory foyer to show how to memorize the 10 Commandments.  A padlocked gun rack was our reminder of the 5th Commandment (in the Catholic rendering), which you might guess is “Thou shalt not kill.” That portrait of the parents served a similar purpose, the fourth commandment being to “Honor your father and mother.” The other locations had less explicit connections, but for the 7th: the chandelier was said to be made of steel to remind us “Though shalt not steal.” I’ll explain in the text how the same locations can be used ad infinitum for completely new sets of material.

[5] Cynthia King, Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, (William B. Irvine, Pub: CreateSpace.com, 2011), 23.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty-one books including Memorize the Faith! and The Porch and the Cross. He is currently working on a new book – How to Think Like Epictetus (And Memorize His Handbook!) that will employ and flesh out this method.

The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

Isn’t it more appropriate for us humans to endure and be strong? We understand, after all, that we suffer for the sake of something good, either to help our friends, to aid our city, to fight on behalf of women and children, or for the most important and weighty reason of all, to be good and just and self-controlled. No one achieves this without pain. And so I conclude that because we humans acquire all good things by pain, the person who is unwilling to endure pain all but condemns himself to being worthy of nothing good.

Musonius Rufus

As someone who runs along a seesaw with psychology at one end and philosophy at the other, I try to stay balanced and centred in an attempt to be objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Psychologists are taught to find evidence by conducting experiments on humans and non-human animals, but the search for evidence at the moment is heartbreakingly painful. Statistics are grim reminders of facts. I don’t want to believe them because they are too awful to face.

The proportions and percentages don’t matter. All lives are equal and every life that ends disturbs me. Death is the price we pay for living, it is that unwelcome visitor who will come knocking one day. Stoics aim to display courage in the face of it and memento mori is a daily mantra. Negative visualisation is recommended, but it is not for the faint hearted. The shock can be stressful for sensitive souls. I hear the gentle dulcet tone of Derek Parfit describing how simple it can be to cease to exist. As a parent I don’t mind leaving the party but my concern for those left behind never quells. 

During my Logotherapy training one distressing part of the course focussed on writing and sharing autobiographies. Viktor Frankl didn’t conceptualise this methodology, but some teachers of his psychological theory have incorporated it into their curriculum. In fact, he was extremely reluctant to record his own experiences in Man’s Search for Meaning. When he was eventually persuaded to, he rapidly fired it out in a period of nine days.

I was ever so slightly disappointed in recent times, when factual inaccuracies in his account regarding the amount of time he spent in some of those places, came to light. Together with Marcus Aurelius and my long departed Grandad, Frankl had become a role model for me to look up to. The longer I dwelt on it though, the more I realised it is of little consequence whether it was Theresienstadt, Dachau or Auschwitz. Those were all places of evil created by humans and maybe Frankl or his translators wanted to put emphasis on the one that was most widely known, for the worst of all possible reasons. Furthermore, I came to realise how tiresome a woman’s search for father figures can be, whilst acknowledging that role models should not be worshipped. 

Creating one’s own narrative of the past can be pleasurable depending on how we choose to frame it. We can sift through what we think we remember and put our own spin on it. We can run up the molehills and slide down the mountains safe in the knowledge it is all in the past. We can choose to feel relieved and chuffed with ourselves for coping with struggles and battling through pain. But even though it has all happened it doesn’t stop existing.

Our memories are part of us. We are our experiences. You can try and file the sad and traumatic ones in the completed filing cabinet and throw away the key, but they have a particularly insidious habit of leaking out just when they’re least needed. Maybe if you step up to the podium to give a presentation, or if your child asks why the world is such a bad place, you may find the burden of your experiences seems heavier than ever before.  

Writing can have a cathartic or therapeutic effect. Journaling is very high on the list of Stoic priorities. Marcus and Massimo are testament to its value. Donald encourages us to record our anxious thoughts. We can make our thoughts into words before they become intentions or actions. We can distance ourselves from them and make room to create a space. That space is invaluable, unquantifiable and safe. Freedom exists there, in a gap between the mind and the body.

This place can be anything you want it to be and it doesn’t need to have a name. The ancient Stoics may have called it the soul, and some may call it the spirit. Frankl named it the noetic dimension, the part of us that experiences emotions, love and creativity. The individual bit that makes us uniquely different from other humans, even though collectively we are the same species. 

But “wait a minute” as Homer would say. Finding this space of freedom may require faith or belief. Maybe a leap too far into a fantasy land somewhere between fact and fiction. Many experimental psychologists get fidgety and dismissive about such non-physical stuff. I can understand why.

Indoctrination and inculcation have occurred in many settings. Various schools of psychological analysis and therapy have been freely associated with dubious methods. Psyches are delicate things and they should be treated with care, the relationship between psychotherapist and patient being key to unlocking the fortress.

We’d be lost without psychologists who study our behaviour statistically. Without them we wouldn’t know how effective modern Stoic therapy is. Tim uncovers the evidence and tells all the Tiggers in the Stoicon room that ‘zest’ is the property that increased the most overall amongst participants in Stoic Week. I’m confused though because I don’t know how zest can live in the same room with ‘amor fati’ above the door. 

I need to run back to the other end of the seesaw in search of wonder. Philosophy keeps the endless search for meaning alive. Without the ceaseless attempts to gain wisdom through analysis and argument we may as well give up on existence. I crawl out of my safe space where I have been hiding from the world news and seek sanctuary by listening to That Philosophy Guy on YouTube. I

’m delighted to hear encouraging tales of Stoic endurance during the current crisis, as well as helpful tips on how to think about what’s inside the box. The mention of Alasdair Macintyre reminds me that miracles can happen to those who believe them. I smile because another human laughs at ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Larry David, I hope you know how much you have helped my family as we have eagerly gathered on the sofa to share humour during this strange situation.

Oh gosh, there it is in print – the ‘H’ word. ‘Hope’ is a word I can’t recall seeing too often in ancient Stoic texts. I wish it was a preferred different or a preferred indifferent, or maybe a dispreferred indifferent or a dispreferred different. I’m losing the dichotomy of control and need help! Being helpless and feeling hopeless is not a good thing or a good look. 

Why did the Stoics choose fate over hope? Maybe they preferred to stay grounded like the Buddhists, living for the moment instead of having one foot in the past and one in the future. The Christians entered the fray to spread the word of hope, and being the eternal optimist I get it. Life can be pretty grim without hope. Not to mention how we couldn’t have had that movie classic ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’ without Jesus on our side. However, unless you believe in those miracles that didn’t exactly end well.

A few years ago, as a rookie philosophy student at The Open University my baptism of fire began with David Hume. Nigel Warburton gave me plenty to get my teeth stuck into, so I continued to remain a bundle of emotions with a sceptical perspective. But the Stoics were more successful. They threw aside hope and embraced fate instead. They loved the idea so much they wore the T-shirts with amor fati slogans. If you are happy with anything life throws at you, hope is surplus to requirements. The Stoic sage doesn’t need it. I wonder whether modern Stoics would consider opening the door to let hope in, if it is an intention you wish for others, but not for yourself. 

Truth be told I don’t think some of us are built like those ancients. I struggle to identify with Marcus, the male in his armour heading into battle with a plague hot on his heels. Even Musonius, the most feminist Stoic, equates courage with ‘manliness’ (andreia). I’m inclined to agree with Frankl who doesn’t reduce the human person to gender. We are simply all the same apart from dangly bits and hidden crevices.

Many of us have grown up with a hopeful mindset and it’s rare to find a child who doesn’t believe in magic. Hope seems to be in innate part of being human but sometimes sadly it can be extinguished. Being separated from early caregivers is not an isolated strange situation but it can stay with us. Every day we grow like onions adding layer upon layer of experience. We are at the mercy of our environment and those who inhabit it, whilst we are also products of our physiology where genetic and biological factors play a part. No wonder sometimes in later life it can be hard to find meaning in it all.  

Consequently, I take care not to overburden myself with total responsibility for my well-being. Both Stoicism and Logotherapy are forms of top-down philosophical and psychological treatments. Whilst having some value for self-care during the current crisis it may be unwise to be solely reliant on either. They both may be needed but are a big ask of many on a continuous basis. Maybe it’s better to leave some resources in the tank for when they are essential.

Have another read of Antonia Macaro’s book ‘More Than Happiness’. Be mindful and stay safe in the moment. Nevertheless, by deep searching I should be able to gain inspiration from the Stoics and the one who springs to mind is Epictetus. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches, and he may be a carrier of guilt and shame. Moving from slavery to mastery is never easy. Epictetus isn’t going to tell you what you want to hear to stay in your good books or indulge that inner child you may be clinging on to.

Maybe there are some caveats in his Discourses that should carry warning signs. Even allowing for context, Epictetus wouldn’t be welcome at many feminist soirees. Then there is his controversial open door policy. Young people should be especially wary of how they interpret it. In our modern times nobody should ever feel their suffering is too great to bear. Talk to someone please and always remember you are loved. 

Concerns aside, Epictetus speaks to me like Frankl does. They both believe in the power of the ‘will’. In Frankl’s case it is the ‘will to meaning’ whilst Epictetus wears ‘prohairesis’ on his chest. He is the Stoic existentialist who believes we have the freedom to make a choice. Epictetus reminds us it is not simply a matter of what we can and can’t control based on what feels good or bad. We need to hit our personal gym and work on attitude.

The human capacity for reason not only makes us rational beings but opens up a space where we can develop our moral character. By lifting the bar and increasing virtue we become better people for those around us, not for ourselves. Stoic medals aren’t won for being superior to anyone else or by telling people how they should live the good life. In fact, there are no medals. No wonder Stoics brim over with zest. Zest is motivational and inspirational but not goal driven like hope. For Stoics, zest can be that enthusiasm or spirit that spurs them on without the need to search for rewards. Thank you Epictetus for providing me with inspiration. 

Resources now abound. I can retreat into my soul and work on virtue. I can utilise my noetic space and avail of freedom. And last but not least I can go to The Good Place and laugh. In any of these places I have to be prepared to endure anything that comes my way. Good and bad, pleasure and pain, suffering and death. Bring it on! That’s what life is all about. 

So, you would expect when error involves the things of greatest importance, our natural confidence is perverted into rashness, thoughtlessness, recklessness and shamelessness. At the same time, all fear and agitation, we exchange our natural caution to the will and functions of the will, and the mere wish will bring with it the power of avoidance. But if we direct it at what is outside us and none of our responsibility, wanting instead to avoid what’s in the control of others, we are necessarily going to meet with fear, upset and confusion. Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear. Which is why we praise the poet who wrote, ‘Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is’.

 Epictetus

Alison McCone is a lifelong learner about to graduate with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies. She is in the process of completing a thesis in Logotherapy devoted to her husband, two sons, family and friends. She is also a Volunteer at Fighting Words in Ireland.

Stoic Students: How We Are Learning to Let Go of Worry and Find Peace by Ryan Racine and Igor Ratkovic

Throughout university, we studied a lot of theory. We read the works of thinkers like Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, and were taught to question a variety of societal norms that we commonly held to be true. While these theoretical ideas excited us, there was something noticeably missing from our education, that being a focus on the mental health side of student life. We often felt unsure about how to handle difficult situations at school, such as remaining optimistic after receiving a low grade on a paper or staying motivated during the mental grind of exam season. It was not until we started reading Stoic philosophy on an ongoing basis that we learned how to stay positive in the face of adversity.

We never formally studied Stoicism in university. In fact, the only mention of it came when one of our English professors briefly referenced the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during a lecture on Williams Shakespeare’s Richard III. Though we did not dive into a deep exploration of Aurelius’s ideas at the time, the first Stoic seed was planted, one which would eventually grow into not only a fascination of the philosophy but a willingness to live out its core principles and teachings.

After finishing graduate school, we continued to explore the philosophy by reading not only the original texts of the Roman stoics Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius but also contemporary authors like Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson, both of whom write about Stoicism and its relevance to the modern society.  We found that the time-tested practices that Stoic philosophy had to offer made a real difference in our day-to-day lives.

Since these ideas were not being discussed at university, we decided to build our own workshop around the most effective Stoic practices for letting go of worry and finding peace. We were lucky enough to present to a couple of Teachers College classes not too long ago about how Stoicism has changed our lives and were grateful for how receptive the students were to our ideas. One student thanked us for confirming that the fears she has about her future are also shared by her peers. She left the presentation feeling more at ease, knowing that the challenges she has are not unique to her situation while at the same time feeling optimistic that the practices we discussed could help her moving forward.

We will be going through five Stoic practices below that we include in our workshop, practices that we use on a daily basis in both our personal and professional lives. Though many people would consider them common-sense practices, we find that the business of life sometimes gets in the way of remembering their usefulness.

Practice #1: Separate What Is In Your control From What is not in Your Control

Epictetus said that obsessive worrying is often a result of stressing over an external outcome that has not happened yet. He argued that we should instead concern ourselves with matters that we have complete control over. This idea is central to the Stoic teaching known as the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control is all about making the best use of what is in our power and not being attached to external results. This principle is easier said than done, but if practiced, it can help simplify our priorities in life while making us more serene.

If you are a student, consider the things that you have complete control over, such as how you frame events, how you respond to difficult situations and your intentions. Since things like reputation and grades are not completely under your control, it should be the least of your worries. Prioritize attending class as frequently as possible, going through course readings carefully, putting as much effort as you can into a given assignment, and making a daily schedule that works for you. If you focus your attention on factors that are only within your control, you give yourself the best possible chance to succeed.

Practice #2: Premeditate upon Future Difficulties

A second useful practice is what Seneca calls “premeditatio malorum,” which means to meditate upon future difficulties. This practice involves imagining what you believe to be the worst-case scenario that could arise from a particular situation and learning to be okay with the outcome. For example, if you are working on a seminar presentation, consider the possibility that your audience will not be receptive to your ideas and questions. This kind of thinking may seem pessimistic, but it is far from it. Premeditating on difficulties is not about continually fixating on what could go wrong but briefly considering what could happen if it does and understanding that, in most cases, our world will go on. If we can make peace with the worst-case scenario, we can then effectively work towards improving our chances of success.

We believe that there are significant benefits to contemplating the possibility that you may not receive the grade you were hoping for in a course or considering that you could end up switching programs at some point down the road. Premeditation can help us take pressure off the need to reach a particular destination as quickly as possible (e.g., a career upon graduating). Instead, this practice teaches us to slow down and appreciate the unpredictable journey of life.

Practice #3: Take an Outside View

Epictetus says that when we go through some type of misfortune, we should imagine as if the same thing happened to a friend and consider the advice we would provide him or her. Reminding ourselves that difficulties happen to everyone is comforting and can help us to avoid catastrophizing the hardships we are facing. A related practice that Aurelius uses is to ask ourselves if we would likely feel the same way about the particular problem we are dealing with 10 or 20 years from now. If you think you would not even be able to recall it, then the matter might not be as life-altering as you think.

Students can remind themselves that other people in their program have encountered and will continue to encounter similar difficulties, such as failing an assignment, pulling an all-nighter, or even dropping out. Knowing that others have lived through rough patches and became stronger for it can help us realize that we can do it too.

Practice #4: Be Willing to Reframe Your Value Judgements

The Stoics believed that the words we use to describe something affect how we feel about it. Therefore, using strong words (such as horrible, stupid, etc.) when we evaluate things can fire up our emotions in a vicious cycle. Instead, we should avoid catastrophizing events and instead stick to the facts as accurately and objectively as possible.

In his book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson details the frail state that Aurelius was in while governing Rome. Due to his chronic health problems, the Roman emperor went through an extraordinary amount of pain daily and was bed ridden near the end of his life. However, he did not complain nor view physical discomfort as a bad thing. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to develop internal strength and resilience. We can use Aurelius’s positive attitude during his final days on earth as motivation. His outlook inspires us to consider the silver lining in any situation we may face.

If you are met with hardships at school, try using any of these Stoic reframe mottos to help you view an event from a different perspective:

  • “It is not what we bear, but how we bear it.” – Seneca
  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “Whenever you find yourself in a hole, remind yourself of Hercules who became strong only because of the challenges he faced.” -Jonas Salzgeber
  • “The divine will exist and directs the universe with justice and goodness. Though it is not always apparent if you merely look at the surface of things, the universe we inhabit is the best possible universe.” – Epictetus

Practice #5: Follow a Morning Routine

Aurelius believed that one of the best times to look inward, examine, and reflect is in the morning. He would spend time meditating on the potential challenges he might encounter later on in the day. As opposed to waking up and immediately rushing to school or work, a morning routine allows you to get a head start on the day. Having a morning routine will allow you to attain a small victory before you leave the house, and this feeling can lead to a domino effect for the rest of the day.

Start thinking about what your current morning routine looks like and whether it needs to be improved. Do you find yourself rushing to get to where you want to be? As an example, our morning routines look similar and consist of waking up early, reading self-development books for around thirty minutes, exercising, showering, meditating, and writing. We also make time for journaling, a practice that Aurelius valued as well. If you are unsure about where to start with your journaling, start with writing one thing you are grateful for. Then, write about what your day is expected to look like while including some potential problems that may occur. For example, you may consider the possibility of not doing well on your midterm or having a disagreement with group members about a presentation idea. Lastly, reflect on what you could tell yourself to help get you through these difficult situations (you may want to revisit some of the above reframe mottos).

Please know that we are not trying to be prescriptive by suggesting that all of the above practices will work for every student. Anyone reading this blog post is free to discard the bits of advice that they disagree with or find irrelevant to their current circumstance. The great thing about the Stoic philosophers is that they did not consider their words to be doctrinal and were open to being challenged. However, Stoic philosophy has shaped our worldview for the better and, in our opinion, can help influence others, especially students trying to keep up with the demanding expectations placed on them by teachers, parents, and themselves. Stoicism is a philosophy of life and it’s meant to be practiced in the real world, so go out there a give it a shot. Like many others before you, you may well find that the philosophy of Stoicism, if practiced regularly, can bring more joy, serenity, and freedom into your life, even during the most trying of times.

Igor Ratkovic is a full-time entrepreneur and award-winning YouTuber with over half a million subscribers. He completed Teachers College in 2017 and a Masters of Arts in English in 2018 at Brock University.

Ryan Racine is a school teacher and college instructor. He received his Masters of Arts in English in 2017 and has published in magazines such as PACE, The Ekphrastic Review, and University Affairs.

Last Chance to Enroll for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2020

There’s still time to enrol in the 4 week Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT).

This training has run a number of times before and secured great feedback and very significant improvements in well-being, maintained after 3 months for most participants.

You can take part in it regardless of whether or not you have taken part in it before or not and regardless of how much or little you know about Stoicism. We recommend setting aside about 20 minutes a day for reading and exercises related to the course.

You will also get the opportunity to find out how Stoic you are at the beginning and end of the course, and how your well-being changes, by filling in the questionnaires (You don’t have to do this, but it sure helps us with our research and we hope it’s helpful to you too.,

Donald Robertson, the author of the course, is once again facilitating, this year with assistance from Tim LeBon. Donald will be hosting weekly webinars on Sundays. For the first time there will also be a Facebook group and twitter feed dedicated to the course.

To enroll, please visit the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course homepage.

You have until Sunday to join the 4,000 people already enrolled!

Hope to see you there.

Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon

Countdown to SMRT Course – 4 Days Until It Starts!

The 4-week Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course starts this coming Sunday, May 10. This is a free online course designed to help students learn about key principles and practices of Stoicism, and apply them in day-to-day life.

As the name indicates, two key focuses of the course are attentive mindfulness and developing resiliency. Both of these are helpful for dealing with the usual challenges of our lives, careers, relationships, as well as the worldwide crisis we find ourselves in at present.

It is an intensive course, so participants should expect to devote 20-30 minutes most days, and 1 hour of time to the reading for each week. Thousands of people have taken this course over the years (and some of them keep coming back!)

If you think this course might be good for you, and you’d like to enroll, click here to be taken to the course site.

Stoicism and Epicurus —Similarities and Differences by Victor Lange

Introduction: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Since both Stoicism and the teachings of Epicurus are among of the most prominent philosophical movements of the Hellenistic period, many have had an interested in comparing the two. Both movements should be seen as a way of life or as a guide to happiness (Gr. eudaimonia).

For Epicurus, philosophy essentially concerns “the health of the soul […] [and hereby] happiness” (Diogenes Laertes X, 122). Similarly, Marcus Aurelius clearly states that only philosophy can guide us through the constant changing and demanding human existence (Meditations II, 17)—while Cicero writes that “[p]hilosophy is the art of life” (On The Ends, III, 4).

This short post offers an overview of important similarities and differences between the two movements and their view of how to live well. The first section of the paper compares the Stoic and Epicurean view on pleasure and virtue. Hereafter, the second section discusses how death and the god-like human are important themes in both traditions. At last, the third section aims to clarify how Stoicism and the thoughts of Epicurus both contain ‘pro-social’ and ‘non-social’ elements in their judgements on how one should relate to other human beings. The paper is only thought of as an introduction to the similarities and differences between the two philosophical traditions.

1. Pleasure and Virtue     

If Epicurus and the Stoics converge in their attitude that philosophy is a way of life, they diverge in the further specification on what a happy life consists in. Epicurus notoriously claimed that essentially only pleasure (Gr. hēdonē) is the standard of the good life: the healthy soul and the happy life are the soul and the life that experience and contain the greatest pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 129). But Epicurus’s hedonistic view is more complex than it may appear at first.

Importantly, he stresses that we must be prudent and only choose pleasures that do not involve the return of pain (additionally, we must sometimes choose pains because they can give us greater pleasure further down the line). Activities such as luxurious eating, drinking, and living involve such pleasures that return with pain: such habits cultivate an infinite desire for superfluous extravagance, which leaves the soul in unbalance and disturbed[i] (Diogenes Laertes X, 128-133).

Having this in mind, pleasure is a complex notion for Epicurus. Negatively, pleasure is to be understood as the absence of pain; positively, pleasure is to be understood as the satisfaction of basic desires and furthermore also the peace of mind. This is important in relation to Epicurus’s view of the happy human. For Epicurus, the happy human has prudence (Gr. phronēsis), which basically means that she is capable of judging truly right what will bring her (true) pleasure and what will bring her disturbance and unnecessary pain. To be happy is to be prudent, and to be prudent is to know this nature of pleasure.

These above considerations are important to keep in mind if we are to understand Epicurus’s view of virtue. Famously, Epicurus defines the value of virtue in relation to pleasure. In short, he is known for establishing what we could call a ‘hedonistic conditional of virtue’. This conditional says: if virtue does not bring us pleasure, then we should not act in accordance with it. Hereby, Epicurus sees virtue as only of instrumental value: in principle, acting virtuously is rational only in so far it brings us pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 138). Nonetheless, following Epicurus, virtue does in fact bring us pleasure. According to him, virtues are “by nature bound up with the pleasant life” and to live virtuously is, hereby, a necessary condition for living pleasantly (Diogenes Laertes X, 133; X, 140).

Jumping to the Stoics, to understand their take on pleasure and virtue, we must understand their distinction between (1) the level of good and evil, and (2) the level of the indifferent (Cicero, On The Ends III, 20).

(1) The level of good and evil can be understood by the following Stoic-style reasoning:
i. something can only be good if it contributes to constituting happiness,
ii. the only thing that constitutes happiness is virtue,
iii. therefore, the only things that are good are those which involve virtue.

Moreover, following this reasoning, something can only be evil if it concerns the hindrance of your happiness and hereby exercise of virtue (i.e., something can only be evil if it concerns vice). Further, and most importantly, the Stoic tradition defines virtue as exclusively depending on the mind (Epictetus Enchiridion 1; Diogenes Laertes VII, 89).

As Seneca writes: “happiness has its abode in one place only, namely, in the mind itself” (Letter LXXIV). In other words, the virtue of an individual is not located in how her actions materialise themselves in the world; what concrete consequences they, in connection on to the particular circumstances, bring about. Instead, virtue is exclusively located in the very quality of her mind initiating those actions.

(2) The level of the indifferent is to be understood directly in relation to the level of good and evil. That is, everything that neither involves virtue or vice (both dispositions that are solely defined by the mind) is indifferent. This means that things such as health, wealth, friendship, sickness, and death should not be labelled as either good or evil—all these things are not under the control of us, they are external to our minds and our virtue, and therefore they are indifferent for living a good life[ii].

To sum up, by the above reasoning it is (hopefully) clear that for the Stoics only events or phenomena that concerns the virtue of a given individual, meaning the qualities of her mind, can carry the qualities of good and evil. Nothing else, nothing external to the mind of the individual, can earn the status of such qualities.

Considering this short introduction of the ethics of Epicurus and Stoicism, it is clear how different they are. From the perspective of the radical virtue ethics of Stoicism, virtue is not at all instrumental such as Epicurus’s hedonistic conditional claims—instead, virtue is of clear intrinsic worth. In addition, Stoic ethics has clear non-hedonistic elements. Going beyond the introduction above, the Stoics often explicitly define joy (i.e. “rational elation”) as the opposite of pleasure, and wish (“rational appetency”) as the opposite of desire (Diogenes Laertes VII, 116).

Following this, pleasure and desire are defined as non-good emotional states (Meditations VIII, 10; Seneca, Letter LXI). The difference between Epicurus and Stoicism become clear when Marcus Aurelius rhetorically asks: “[w]here you born to please yourself[?]”. This is a question which the Epicurus would answer with a clear ‘yes’, and Stoicism with an equally clear ‘no’ (Meditations V, 1).

To conclude, both Epicurus and Stoicism aim at the healthy and peaceful soul: Epicurus through the absence of pain and disturbance from unnecessary fear and craving, the Stoics through a harmonious ordered soul ruled by reason and acting in virtue. One crucial difference underlying this divergence seems to be that Epicurus, since he takes pleasure to be the only thing of intrinsic worth, places good and evil on the level of sensations: “all good and evil consists in sensation” (Diogenes Laertes X, 124). Opposite, the Stoics place good and evil on the level of virtue as found in our minds: good and evil consist solely in what attitude we take to sensations. This is a crucial important difference.

2. Death and the God-like Human

Both Epicurus and the Stoics find death to be an essential topic for philosophy. Epicurus famously writes that “death is deprivation of sensation” which means that death is not something of great pain to us—death is simply nothing to us (Diogenes Laertes X, 124-125). Additionally, Seneca writes that “[d]eath is a release from all suffering”, while Aurelius states that no matter whether there is gods or not, death is not to be feared by the virtuous (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia xix.4; Meditations II, 11).

In an Epicurean perspective, when we stop to fear death and understand that it is nothing to us the disturbing anticipation of death’s pain and the disturbing craving for immortality disappears. In a Stoic perspective, death is not an evil because it is not a vice—contrary, it is a part of nature’s work and the wise person will not give into the irrationality of fearing it. This acceptance of death is a liberation in both perspectives. It cuts away the sickness of fearing and offers an opportunity to live in the present with full pleasure or virtue. To learn to live well is to learn to die well (Diogenes Laertes X, 126).

In both Epicurean and Stoic thought, understanding the nature of death is a true mark of the sage. By considering her own death in the ways sketched above, the sage becomes superior to destiny and fortune. While still living, the Epicurean sage is prudent and knows that pleasure is easy accomplished through the simple life and that death is nothing to fear. Complementary, in anticipation of “any evil before it actually arrives”, the Stoic sage endures all injuring attacks from fortune and keeps her soul ordered with her detached mind ruled by reason (Diogenes Laertes X, 133; Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, ix. 4). In this superiority—in this self-sufficiency (Gr. autarkēia)—the happiness of the sage appears to be god-like, both for Epicurus (Fragments, XXXIII) and the Stoics (Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, 5)[iii]. The sage welcomes death—but while still waiting for it, she lives competently in accordance with the prescriptions of philosophy.

3. The Social Being

At last, we will briefly touch upon on one more important theme in both traditions: namely, the theme of human beings as social beings. Both Epicurus and the Stoics develop what we could call (with a bit modern and perhaps anachronistic terms) ‘pro-social’ and ‘non-social’ elements in their description of human beings as social creatures.

In Stoicism, we find significant pro-social elements in the doctrine that all human beings share a community due to the fact that all human beings are beings of reason—a doctrine very central to Stoicism (Cicero, On The Ends III, 64). More precisely, by nature, human beings are meant to collaborate and work together—they fulfill their function in cosmos when they outlive this pro-social disposition (Meditations II, 1).

As a quick remark of general philosophical interest and in relation to this universal human community, the Stoics appear to view justice in the light of a natural law. According to them, justice is found in nature, “the Whole is social”, and it is our task and work to live in accordance with this natural justice (Meditations V. 30). Contrast this pro-social ‘universalism’ with the following non-social elements in Stoics thought.

Genuine friendship—as Aristotle for example thought of it—is not something that the reserved Stoic can allow herself. This element is clearly expressed in Seneca’s writings: here, friendship is never of substantial value because the Stoic should be capable of living easily without the friend and she should be capable of making friends with any human being (Seneca, Letter IX). The Stoic is non-social in this sense that she will never dare to invest herself emotionally in another person. For her, by rational consideration with regards to her own virtue and the shared reason of every human, every individual is fundamentally the same to her.

Contrary to this, in a clear pro-social way, Epicurus describes friendship as of highest desirability—the intimacy of this relation is of great pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 154). Yet, according to Epicurus, friendship (normally) starts as relation of utility and mutual advantage (as an ‘exchange relationship’ in social psychological terms), but if it is successful it will end in a much deeper connection (as a ‘communal relationship’) (Fragments XXIII).

In other words, humans usually begin friendships because they want ‘to get something out of it’, but if the friendship develops in healthy way the parts uphold this relation because it is of deep value to them in itself. In addition to this and completely opposite to the Stoics, Epicurus describes justice as a social contract and not as a natural law. That is, justice is the result of a contract—it is a social phenomena, not a basic natural phenomena (Diogenes Laertes X, 150).

However, a non-social element arises in Epicurus when he states that “[w]e must release ourselves from the prison of affairs and politics” since this will disturb the peace of our soul (Fragments LVIII). In contrast to the Stoics (who hold that it is in our nature, and in Nature in general, to be political), Epicurus only view the intimate friendship as truly beneficial for the good life—and the good social bond rely on the particularities of this intimacy. Contrary, the Stoics’ cosmopolitan ideals give friendship the character of impersonal construction: friendship is not emotional investment but reserved creation (Gr. poiēsis).

To sum up, the Stoics find humans to be social in the way that they share a cosmopolitan and universal (political) bond—no human is a stranger to another. Contrary, Epicurus advised people to withhold from politics and instead develop intimate and particular friendships. The core difference between the two schools seems to rely on their views on whether humans are to develop ‘special relations’ between each other (Epicurus thinks so, the Stoics do not). In other words, the question seems to be: are we to outlive our sociality to particular individuals, or to the community of the entire human species? 

Conclusion

We have now seen how Stoicism and the thoughts of Epicurus converge and differ in relation to aspects of pleasure, virtue, death, the god-like human, and sociality. This comparison has hopefully highlighted some of the distinctive traits of the two traditions and clarified the characteristics of each line of thought. Personally, I find it astonishing how differently the two schools lay out their guidelines for living well, and how convincing arguments they made for each of their guidelines. Their psychological teachings of the good life do not at all seem out-dated today—neither do the discussions on whether ‘to live well’ is to be understood hedonically (as Epicurus prescribes) or non-hedonically (as the Stoics prescribe), or by being a global citizen of the world (as of the opinion of the Stoics) or by being a local person with particular bonds (as of the opinion of Epicurus).


Notes:

[i] Epicurus systematically divides desires into natural, necessary, and vain desires. We do not have the time to elaborate on this here but the central point is that reach to pleasure, a healthy soul, and the peace of mind (Gr. ataraxia) we must only aim at the natural desires that are also necessary; these can be satisfied and will bring soul to the greatest pleasure and happiness.

[ii] However, indifferent things can be further divided into preferable things (which should be selected) and non-preferable things (which should be rejected). Among the first category we find things such as health and friendship and furthermore what the Stoics call ’appropriate actions’ (Gr. kathēkonta). Appropriate actions are actions that are to be chosen because of nature, one’s position, and one’s duties—still, these actions do not directly concern virtue or happiness.  

[iii] Of course, much more could be said on pleasure, virtue, death, and the god-like sphere of the sage. For example, many Stoic themes are untouched in this paper such as discussions on the function of the hēgemonikon and the ideal of living virtuously which is the same as living in accordance with nature. However, we cannot touch upon these themes here— but we can briefly mention that both the ethics of Epicurus and the Stoics is naturalistic in the sense that importantly stresses that happiness can only be achieved in accordance with and on the conditions of nature (Diogenes Laertes VII, 87; Cicero, On The Ends, III, 61; Fragments, XXI). 

Victor Lange is a masters student and assistant of the research project “Convergent ethics and ethics of controversy” at the Section for Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. He is particularly interested in understanding aspects of Buddhism and Stoicism through the perspective of cognitive science

The Stoic – May 2020

A close up of a sign

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THE STOIC is a free 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 a good bit of overlap in membership).

In this issue, you will find many thoughtful articles from modern Stoics on how to handle the current crisis as well as on other topics. Contributors include prominent modern Stoics such as: Greg Sadler, Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Flora Berenard, Jonas Salzgeber, Meredith Kunz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here

CONTENTS OF THIS ISSUE (THE STOIC ART OF LIVING)

  • GREG SADLER  The art of balancing optimism with realism
  • SHARON LEBELL  The art of cherry-picking what is beneficial         
  • FLORA BERNARD  The art of being free                                     
  • KAI WHITING  The art of fending for ourselves  
  • JONAS SALZGEBER  The art of listening
  • DONALD ROBERTSON  The art of eating                            
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ   The art of handling uncertainty   
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI   The art of dealing with our aversions   
  • SENECA The Art of being imperfect

Call for Student Papers on Stoicism

The student philosophy journal Filosofisk Supplement is accepting papers for their next issue, focused on “Stoicism” (#3/20). All papers must be somewhat related to Stoic philosophy. Here is their call for papers:

Filosofisk Supplement is a student-run journal associated with Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas (IFIKK) at the University of Oslo (UiO). The journal is issued four times a year. Our aims are to serve as a medium for dissemination of philosophy and to contribute to philosophical discussion both at the university and beyond.

To these ends, we also organize seminars at a monthly basis, as well as other philosophically themed events, such as debates.

We accept papers from both current and former students of philosophy and other academic disciplines. We do not accept papers from PhD-candidates in philosophy or professional academic philosophers.

Abstracts and drafts can be sent to this email address. All papers will be
reviewed. Papers should be no longer than 20 pages, (about 400-500 words per page). Please use the Chicago B-reference style.

The deadline is July 15th, and all entries need to be ready in finished form no later than August 15th.

Important: Stoicon 2020 Toronto Rescheduled

Hello everyone,

Due to public health concerns over the global pandemic, Stoicon 2020 Toronto and Stoicon-x Toronto have been rescheduled to 2021. Instead a virtual online conference will now be taking place in 2020.

You can find links to the EventBrite ticket booking pages and Facebook event pages below. Some information is still pending or subject to change because, as you can probably imagine, there’s a re-organizing required due to the pandemic. We hope that you’ll support Modern Stoicism as we adapt to the changing situation. Please share the links on social media to help us spread the word. Thanks!

Stoicon 2020 Online will take place on 17th October 2020.

Stoicon 2021 will take place in Toronto on Saturday 23rd October.

Stoicon-x Toronto will take place on Sunday 24th October 2021.

Greta Thunberg and Epictetian Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

Greta Thunberg first struck me as an interesting person because when she came on the international scene, she was a 16-year-old being verbally abused by powerful men. According to the education I was given, it is inconceivable to be rude to a child, or an old person, and for this reason I immediately sympathized with her. I then bought her little book published by Penguin. The title struck a chord with me: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Her book consists of speeches she has given in various places in favor of the environment. I noticed that several of Greta’s messages and her attitude are perfectly in line with Stoic thinking in general and Epictetus in particular. In this short article, I explore some of these aspects, starting with a brief exposition of Stoic and Epictetian principles, followed by some passages from Greta’s book that I think harmonize with what I will call “Epictetian communitarian action”.

Cicero, an eclectic who transmitted to us several reports about Stoic philosophy in Antiquity, informs us that, according to the Stoics, “no one wishes to spend his life in solitude, even with infinity and abundance of pleasures, it is easily understood that we are born for communion, for the congregation and for the natural community”[1] . He adds that the human community has its origin in the affection, created by nature, from parents towards their children.[2]

We must stress that, on the one hand, Stoicism acknowledges that human beings have egoistical impulses, but, on the other hand,  their innate tendency to live in community must be enhanced through the study and the practice of philosophy. Through this exercise, the Stoics think, the awareness about the urgency of acting unselfishly can be enhanced in the human beings. In fact, for the Stoics, since humans are naturally fit for social intercourse, association, and civility,[3] acting in a communitarian way is something that interests them and that selfishness is an illusion.

Epictetus talks about this social character of human beings from a different perspective, in order to explain why human beings, as social animals, can act at times rather selfishly. He puts forward the case that human beings are conceived from two different perspectives, that is to say a double kinship:

[…] Since these two things are mingled in the generation of man, body in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence in common with the gods, many incline to this kinship, which is miserable and mortal; and some few to that which is divine and happy. Since then it is of necessity that every man uses everything according to the opinion which he has about it, those, the few, who think that they are formed for fidelity and modesty […] no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves […] Through this kinship with the flesh, some of us inclining to it become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous: some become like lions, savage and bestial and untamed; but the greater part of us become foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.3.3-5, 7-8 [4]

For Epictetus, being rational means being aware that you are a part of a greater whole, an individual who is both a local citizen and a world citizen of the Cosmos. He puts forward the case that the human being who leans toward her animal side, that is to say, who acts to fulfill only her personal impulses and desires, losing sight of the social impacts of her actions, loses her moral and rational dimension, because she fails to act ethically.

In other words, in failing to develop her rational and moral character, she is reduced to an irrational animal, who simply seeks the satisfaction of her primary impulses, selfish desires, and sensual appetites. Whilst there is nothing wrong with an animal who is limited in this way, when a human being acts in this way, she does herself a disservice, because she is restricting her personal development and social role.

This idea is further supported by Epictetus’ assertion that acting only to fulfill her own appetites and desires makes the human being disloyal, treacherous, and therefore antisocial, unlike the human being who bends to her rational and moral side, and in doing so becomes trustworthy and dignified and therefore sociable.

While human beings make use of their rational and moral characteristics, they harmonize their egoistical impulses with reason and thus better integrate with the rest of society and the world around them, as Epictetus stresses in his Discourses:

If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth? […] He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of humans and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings—for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with him—why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.9.5

Thus, by leaning towards and valuing rationality, and thereby becoming knowledgeable of the science underlying the Earth of which she is a part, a human being can achieve a communal view of reality, thus finding her place in the Cosmos and seeking in her thoughts and actions what is best for the community in which she lives. Accordingly, for Epictetus, the appropriate action is neither selfless nor selfish, but instead in aiming for the good of the individual and the community as a whole:

This is not a perverse self-regard, for the animal is constituted so as to do all things for itself. For even the sun does all things for itself; nay, even Zeus himself. But when he chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of Gods and humans, you see that he cannot obtain these functions and these names, if he is not useful to man; and, universally, he has made the nature of the rational animal such that it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests, if it does not contribute something to the common interest.

Discourses 1.19.11-15

It follows that to act anti-socially is to act against human nature because it sabotages an individual’s potential to reach eudaimonia, a Greek term that can be roughly translated to “experience a life worth living”. In Discourses 2.10, and in line with what I have just said, Epictetus notes that she who recognizes herself as an important part of the cosmos treats nothing as a private matter, that is, as something separate from those in her community, but acts “as the hand or foot would do, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, for they would never put themselves in motion nor desire anything otherwise than with reference to the whole.”[5]

Thus, we begin to establish that the principles that govern communitarian actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the community) equally support ecological actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the environment, and consequently, once again, the good of the community).

In this sense, a good (virtuous) education should teach individuals that they are an important part of their community. It should emphasize the value of foreseeing the effects of one’s actions in the wider community, to avoid antisocial conduct and to build community. As Epictetus states:

As the proposition it is either day or it is night is of great importance for the disjunctive argument, but for the conjunctive is of no value, so in a banquet to select the larger share is of great value for the body, but for the maintenance of the social feeling is worth nothing. When then you are eating with another, remember to look not only to the value for the body of the things set before you, but also to the value of the behaviour towards the host which ought to be observed.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 36

Similarly, Greta Thunberg expresses an awareness of human nature and the need to acknowledge that rational self-interest aligns with communal interests. She argues that the good of society should not be dictated by what is perceived as “good” by powerful individuals. Greta clearly distinguishes between selfish and antisocial action, which focuses on wealth accumulation, and community focused action, which aims at preserving our world as a suitable place for all living beings.

In her discourse entitled ‘A Strange World’, she notes that we live in a world

where celebrities, film and pop stars who have stood up against all injustices will not stand up for our environment and for climate justice because that would inflict on their right to fly around the world visiting their favorite restaurants, beaches and yoga retreats.[6]

In another discourse, entitled ‘Our House is on Fire’ she follows the same line of thought, reflecting on how the materialistic desires of the privileged few threatens humanity and the world as a whole:

We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”[7]

For this reason, Greta urges all people to act for the whole, all of humanity and the planet on which we live – “For the sake of your children, for the sake of your grandchildren. For the sake of life and this beautiful living planet”[8], since our future is up to us.[9]

For Epictetus and for Greta, antisocial agents always act out of ignorance, because they do not fully realize how their actions ultimately worsens the society in which they live to the detriment of their own lives. For instance, the act of using a car instead of using public transport because it makes your life easier, ultimately does nothing to prevent the destruction of Earth and its climate. Greta realizes that the adults she addresses do not seem to be fully aware of this: “Since the climate crisis is a crisis that never once has been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences from our everyday life”.[10]

For this reason, Greta decided to start a school strike, standing before the Swedish parliament to protest:

When school started in August this year I decided that this was enough. I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school-striked for the climate.[11]

From then on she began to experience something common to many who seek to do the right thing: the hatred and misunderstanding of many. She was insulted and slandered by those who felt threatened by her message as she spoke truth to power. And Greta, in line with what Epictetus taught, responded to her aggressors with courage and serenity, staying focused on the urgency of climate breakdown in and the communal effort it will take to save the planet.

To all the politicians that ridicule us on social media, and have named and shamed me so that people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist, and many other things. To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself. Your silence is almost worst of all. The future of all the coming generations rests on your shoulders.[12]

Greta is well aware that sometimes unpopularity is a price to pay when someone decides to act in a communitarian way. In this sense she mirrors Epictetus’ teaching:

When you have decided that a thing ought to be done and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavourable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?

Epictetus, Enchiridion 35

We have seen that Greta’s actions in many instances align with Stoic and Epictetian wisdom. Even without claiming to be a Stoic, she is a living example of what can done if someone follows ideas like these and achieves an awareness of the need of act in a communitarian way. I think that her example encourages those who aim at following Epictetus to engage with Epictetus’ teachings and to use them to save the planet.


[1] Cicero, On Ends, 3.65.

[2] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.62.

[3] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.64.

[4] Cf. Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.13 ss.

[5] Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.4-5 (George Long’s translation).

[6] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 41.

[7] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 20-21.

[8] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 24.

[9] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 27: “But Homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands.”

[10] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 30.

[11] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 18.

[12] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 10.

Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus and Epictetus Discourses, Book 1 .