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

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

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

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

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

#9 Mindful Fire by Thomas Savino

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


#10 Ode For Marcus Aurelius by Alison McCone

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

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

#11 Zooming with Marcus by Clare Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#13 With Thanks by Oliver Owen

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

#14 Clear Sky or Storm by Traci Deman

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

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

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

My heading true:
simply, virtue.

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Universal Solutions in Stoicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditations 6.54

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

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

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

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

Maybe, Stoicism’s Not for Everyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Stoic by Robin Waterfield

From an early age, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was drawn to a Stoic way of life. What was the attraction for him?

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was in origin just a bundle of handwritten notebooks that somehow survived his death. Someone close to the emperor must have recognized the book’s value and preserved it, and then eventually it became published for wider consumption. In this journal, which was written in the last decade of his life (he died on 17 March, 180 CE), the emperor jotted down his thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. Entries range from single sentences to longer essays. Almost all of them are deeply personal, and their particular flavor is given by the fact that Marcus was following the Stoic practice of critical self-examination and exhortation to do better.

Marcus saw philosophy as a path of self-improvement, and is concerned more or less exclusively with its impact on him personally. The book touches on the divine order of the world and the role in it that human beings should play, but its focus is chiefly on Marcus’s own role. He sometimes talks about himself in the first person, but often in the second, and when he does the “you” whom he admonishes and advises is always himself. About 300 of the 488 entries, spread over twelve notebooks, refer explicitly or implicitly to himself in this way, and the rest enunciate general principles or rules of life, still for himself alone. He is not telling anyone else what to do or how to live. In fact, there are many indications that the book was not intended for publication, especially when he refers to people and events that no one but he could know about. Communication was not his aim in writing, and since his only audience was himself, there was no point in dissimulation. The book is utterly sincere.

In the first of the notebooks, Marcus thanks the people who were, he felt, the main influences on him when he was young, detailing in each case what he felt he gained from each of them. In the sixth entry of this notebook he thanks one of his teachers, a man with the Greek name of Diognetus, for, among other things, turning him on to philosophy. The immediately following entry, in which he thanks another of his teachers, Quintus Junius Rusticus, makes it clear that the particular philosophy that Marcus found attractive was Stoicism: Rusticus lent Marcus his personal copy of Epictetus’s Discourses, and the former slave Epictetus, who had died not many years previously, was recognized as a profound and brilliant exponent of Stoicism.

Stoicism is named after the Painted Stoa of Athens – a large colonnade in the Agora where, at the end of the fourth and beginning of the third century BCE, the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus, modern Larnaka), used to meet his students and discourse on philosophy. A couple of centuries later, Stoicism was taken up by members of the educated and ruling classes of Rome from the end of the Republic and into the imperial era. The toughness of Stoic moral discipline appealed to the robust and militaristic Roman ethos, and it allowed and even encouraged a man to pursue a public career, as many upper-class Romans expected to. A Stoic had, above all, a duty to himself, to make himself a man of virtue, but an aspect of that was being good to others, and this might well entail a public career.

Stoics saw a person’s responsibilities in terms of ever-increasing concentric circles: from preservation of the self to care for family, for extended family, for fellow citizens, for fellow countrymen, and finally for the whole human race. This was certainly one reason why Marcus was attracted to Stoicism: it allowed him to try to reconcile his twin aims of being a good man and a good emperor. But he was not drawn to it because he was emperor, any more than, in the previous generation, Epictetus had been drawn to it because he was a slave. In both cases, it would be closer to the mark to say they found Stoicism despite their statuses. It was Stoicism that seemed to have the potential to answer their most personal and profound questions; for them it was Stoicism, just as for others it is Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, humanism, or whatever. As a Stoic would put it, slaves and emperors are equal if they can accept the roles destiny has assigned them and do the best they can within those roles, especially toward their fellow men.

However, in Marcus’s time, there was no Stoic school as such – no particular teacher recognized as the head of the school, or particular city where one went to study this brand of philosophy – so his education in Stoicism was somewhat haphazard. His commitment to Stoic principles is clear, but he was an amateur philosopher. He was introduced to it in his youth by Rusticus and others, but once his education was over, although he was able to attend occasional lectures, he had to rely largely on reading and regularly checking that he was on what he considered the true path.

This habit of self-checking and self-admonishment helps to explain the nature of many of the entries in Meditations, and in particular the way that Marcus comes back again and again to the same core topics, such as controlling his temper, not seeking fame, and not fearing death. This is not just a result of the fact that he was jotting ideas down as they occurred to him over the course of many years. It is also an essential feature of this kind of writing. Writing things down is always a good way to fix them in your mind, and that is what Marcus was doing. Writing them down again and again fixes them even better, and was a practice that was encouraged within Stoicism. In an exercise he learned from Epictetus, Marcus frequently urges himself to have his core precepts readily available for consultation, and to keep them pithy and memorable, so that they can strike his mind with their original force. For example: “Clear your mind; control your impulses; extinguish desire; see that your command center retains its self-mastery” (9.7).

This is what really explains the stylistic details of Meditations: the great majority of the entries, especially the brief ones, are, above all, Marcus’s way of “dyeing his mind” (5.16) with the ideas and teachings that could help him be a better person and a better emperor. The entries are fragments of a kind of dialogue between teacher and pupil, where Marcus simultaneously plays both parts. For Marcus, the notebooks and their entries were designed to reinforce and revive, if necessary, the moral precepts he had come to accept as true, as a way of helping him to put them into practice.

Although the Stoic school was not united on every point of philosophy, there was enough of a common core to legitimate talk of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Marcus was basically an orthodox Stoic and it is impossible to understand where he is coming from without some knowledge of Stoicism. This is not to deny that many readers profit from the book without knowing much about Stoicism. Marcus addresses general life issues that strike chords with any reader. But Marcus’s own mindset and frame of reference was basically Stoicism, and the book takes Stoic principles for granted on every page.

However, no reader of Marcus needs to know all there is to know about Stoicism. The Stoics divided philosophy into three branches: logic, physics, and ethics. Logic covered not only the rules of correct argumentation, but grammar, linguistics, rhetorical theory, epistemology, and all the tools that might be needed to discover the truth of any matter. Physics was concerned with the nature of the world and the laws that govern it, and so included ontology and theology as well as what we would recognize as physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Ethics was concerned with how to achieve happiness, or how to live a fulfilled and flourishing life as a human being.

Some Stoics held that all three branches were of equal importance, but others, while acknowledging their interdependence, held that logic and physics were subordinate to ethics. They came up with nice images to express this. If logic is the wall and physics the orchard protected by the wall, ethics is the fruit. Or, if logic is the human skeleton and muscles, and physics flesh and blood, ethics is the soul. It is clear that Marcus belonged among those who prioritized ethics. At the very end of the first notebook he thanks the gods for the fact that “I did not shut myself away and study history, or analyze arguments, or occupy my time with the study of celestial phenomena.” At 7.67 he says:

You may have resigned yourself to never being good at logic or physics, but don’t on that account despair of being self-reliant, modest, focused on the common good, and obedient to God.

His relative ignorance of Stoic logic and physics was, in his opinion, no impediment to his being a good person. Again we see that what he found attractive about Stoicism was what it could do for him personally.  

However, Marcus was familiar enough with aspects of physics and logic to ground and give a Stoic flavor to his ethics. For instance, he frequently remarks on how the four elements recognized by Stoicism (earth, water, air, fire) are constantly being recycled by the death and disintegration of things. It is one of his consolations in the face of death: it is a natural process that happens to everything. But it is also clear that he was not very interested in either logic or physics in themselves. He was more interested in their implications for the daily practice of self-improvement.

There are no extended discussions of logical or physical matters in Meditations, as there occasionally are of ethical matters. You can believe in the perfection of the universe, say, and the importance of that for you personally, without holding a theory about how exactly it came to be so. You trust the greater intellects that have handed down the idea. At 10.16 he scorns philosophizing even about ethical matters: “No more abstract discussions about what a good man is like: just be one!” He committed himself to the therapeutic practice of Stoicism, but not so much to its theory. His concern was to be a good emperor, not a professional philosopher.

Ancient philosophy was considerably different from its modern cousin. Modern philosophy is pursued in classrooms, seminars, and the written word, and much of it consists of the analysis of abstract concepts and arguments, but much ancient philosophy, and especially Marcus’s kind of Stoicism, was philosophy to live by and practice daily. It was supposed to purge you from your base attachments and make you a better person, and the ideal was to be a master of this art, a Stoic sage. The therapeutic purpose of philosophy attracted Marcus:

A person’s lifetime is a moment, his existence a flowing stream, his perception dull, the entire fabric of his body readily subject to decay, his soul an aimless wanderer, his fortune erratic, his fame uncertain. In short: the body is nothing but a river; the soul is dream and delusion; life is war and a sojourn in a strange land; and oblivion is all there is to posthumous fame. What, then, can escort us safely on our way? Only one thing: philosophy. (2.17)

If you had both a stepmother and a mother, you’d do your duty by your stepmother, and yet you’d constantly return to your mother. That’s how you stand today in relation to the imperial court and philosophy. Return, then, at frequent intervals to philosophy and lean on it for rest. With its help, even court business seems tolerable to you, and you become tolerable while attending to it. (6.12)

It is no exaggeration to say that each entry in the notebooks is, as it were, a dose of self-administered therapeutic medicine.

Over the centuries before Marcus’s time, philosophy had in effect gone in two directions. High philosophy, as we may call it, was the impersonal presentation of often very subtle ideas and arguments; some of the work of the Stoics, for instance, on logic and epistemology is as challenging as philosophical work of any era. Low philosophy, on the other hand, was the attempt to make philosophy practical and accessible to the common man and woman. Hence professional philosophers generally presented a public image that stressed poverty, or at least frugality, as a way of advertising the success of their teaching: they had moved beyond the superficial values of the world, and they could teach others to do so as well. The pupils they wanted were those who already felt somewhat at odds with the world. To judge by Marcus’s frequent complaints in Meditations about the world and the people around him, he was a perfect candidate.

Marcus was originally drawn to the Stoic way by its austerity and by the quality he perceived in those of his teachers who were already on the path, but an aspect of Stoicism that he stresses in Meditations, especially when contrasting it with Epicureanism, is the orderliness of its universe. It is not just that everything has its place in the hierarchical order of things, but that the whole world was created by a benign deity and is maintained by the providential care of that deity. Every one of a person’s experiences, therefore, has been specifically designed for him alone; his world is thus full of meaning. Epicureans, by contrast, saw the world as a randomly generated conglomeration of atoms, indivisible lumps of matter; they denied the existence of gods, except as special formations of atoms, which in their view exercised no care for human beings or any other aspect of the world. And they denied that it was natural for human beings to care for others.

Although there was plenty of common ground between Stoics and Epicureans – their thorough-going materialism, the dominance of reason in the human soul, the quest for peace of mind – it was clearly Marcus’s view that the Epicureans had built the wrong kind of edifice on these foundations. He preferred Stoic self-discipline to their notion that pleasure, in some form, constituted the human good; the virtues promoted by Stoicism seemed to him closer to traditional Roman virtues. He could see no point in living in a world without gods, and whereas the Epicureans believed that peace of mind could come only by withdrawing from the world, the Stoics believed that it came from engaging with the world in the right way, and especially from recognizing that all the thoughts and feelings that disrupt tranquility are generated by one’s own mind, and can therefore be dispelled by one’s own mind. Nothing is bad unless you think it so. Stoicism puts all responsibility for one’s moral life and character squarely on the individual himself or herself and, aware that there was room for personal improvement, Marcus took up the challenge.

Robin Waterfield is the editor and translator of Meditations: The Annotated Edition, which will be published by Basic Books on April 6, 2021. You can find out more about Robin’s work at his website, robinwaterfield.com.

THE STOIC – April 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).

The theme of this issue is ‘STOIC QUESTIONS’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Sharon Lebell, Jonas Salzgeber, Piotr Stankiewicz, Kai Whiting and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Were there two Faustinas?
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Are we meant to cooperate?
  • SHARON LEBELL. Are we wise … or playful?
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. What is living ‘purposefully’?
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. What does a Stoic give up?
  • KAI WHITING. How religious were the Stoics?
  • ELBERT HUBBARD. What was Marcus Aurelius’ childhood like?


  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.
  • STOIC QUOTES for everyday of the month
  • And much more!

Stoicism, Sports, and Fandom – An Exchange by Tim Lebon and Greg Sadler

My friend and colleague, Tim Lebon and I had a recent exchange of emails over the last several weeks – we’re going to call them “letters” here – having to do with a topic that some portion of our readers will easily relate to, that is, being a sports fan and trying to reconcile that with practicing Stoicism. We plan (fate willing) to pick this exchange back up and continue it in the coming months as well, since there’s likely a good bit more to be said about the matters we discuss below.

Letter 1

Hi Greg

I remember you wrote about Stoicism and sport a while ago and something happened that made me think we might usefully dialogue about  it.

My soccer team, Spurs, suffered a humiliating defeat last night. They were 2-0 up and in the second leg lost 3-0 away to Dynamo Zagrieb, a team they would be expected to beat. This means they are out of the Europa Cup and their season effectively over. To make matters worse, the opposition manager was put in prison for fraud a couple of days before the match,  so we should really have had the upper hand!

I wasn’t quite as upset as usual, and I am wondering if my Stoicism helped. But I am still somewhat affected.
What would Marcus Aurelius say about this?

  • That it is just 11 grown men kicking a piece of dead animal (or whatever) around for 90 minutes?
  • That the match will all be forgotten in a few years?
  • That at that very time people are starving, getting tortured, dying and so it really isn’t important?
  • That the result doesn’t really affect me, because it doesn’t affect my ability to be virtuous?
  • That the result  might even be good as it is a Stoic challenge, for me to respond with magnanimity – the better team did win on the night, and for them it must be a miracle night!

All of this. 

I like the magnanimity idea best – through Croatian eyes, the performance must be wonderful!

So maybe I should stop watching sports? Isn’t it a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t I be better off reading Marcus, or talking to my friends or family? Or doing the gardening or dishes? Maybe.

But sports happens to be the way I bond with a lot of male friends – and my son too – even though he supports a different team!

How does a Stoic bond with others? Maybe they bond with other Stoics through Stoicism? Maybe I should just bond with other Stoics? The Epicureans had their Garden, maybe we should have one?

What about family then, do they come second?  Isn’t it good to connect with Non-Stoics so we connect with alternative views and the “real world?”

Perhaps the best policy is to treating my team winning as a preferred indifferent and to be  moderate in my watching of sports.

So maybe as a good Stoic my policy should be as follows: “I prefer my team to win, but even if they don’t I ecan njoy the spectacle and see the big picture – such as genuinely being pleased for the opposition’s joy. I watch my sports in moderation.”

I am sure this is very wise. But it goes against the tribal aspect of watching sports. Would I change allegiance just because a team had a more ethical policy or a more attractive style of play? My sporting friends would be aghast if I made such a switch.

Won’t  I enjoy the highs less if I take this rational approach to watching sports? Maybe, but the counter-argument that is all for the best. The highs aren’t worth the risk of reducing my tranquillity and leading me astray in the pursuit of virtue – watching sports is in this way like getting addicted to a drug.

So the discipline of desire requires me to adjust my attitude and behaviour with regards to sports. Any thoughts?

Kind regards,

Letter 2

Dear Tim,

I can definitely commiserate with you.  One of the characteristics of the “classic” Green Bay Packers team that I grew up rooting for as a kid in the 70s and 80s is managing to lose to teams that one would think they ought to beat!  That happened again this year in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl.  The Packers had home field advantage, hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau field in the middle of a Wisconsin Winter.  They were given about 66% odds of winning the game, and had they done so, we would have seen a historic repeat of the very first Super Bowl, when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Packers managed to lose 31-26.

These sorts of outcomes can be galling.  But I suppose they really ought to be expected.  There’s rarely any sure things, and any given game, where there are multiple players on a team, there’s so many things outside of the control of any given player, right?  And as fans, we’re really just along for the ride, watching, perhaps cheering, most likely allowing our desires and aversions, a wide range of our emotions, perhaps even a sense of duties (we’re fans after all) get involved with the outcome of a game.  And, as the game progresses, with each part and portion of the game as well.

I don’t know that – if we are really fans and intend to remain so – the Marcus “breakdown” or “deconstruction” is really going to be all that helpful.  Analogous to the examples he chooses – a nice and well plated meal is just dead stuff, sex is just rubbing with some fluids – telling ourselves that the game our favorite teams play is “just. . . .”, well that’s more a strategy for someone who needs to break an addiction, an obsession, a weakness for something.  It strikes me as the sort of thing the people who ostentatiously display themselves as above it all by calling things “sportsball” might find more congenial.

The reality is that, yes, we can break these sporting events down into less meaningful components that are less likely to suck us in or lure us with temptations into the wrong sorts of emotional attachments and investments.  That could be useful for some aspects.  But there can be some positive aspects to sports fandom, understood and managed in the right Stoic manners, and we don’t want to throw those away.

I think that one of the key features of the other potential Marcus-responses you suggest is maintaining a sense of proportion. And that, to me, seems like something very closely connected with the virtue of prudence, as well as with justice.  So that seems a productive line to explore. 

  • How much value ought we to assign to sports, and to what aspects of it precisely? 
  • How much time should we take away from other things, like reading, gardening, or spending time with (not-interested-in-sports) family? 
  • How emotionally invested ought we to be? 

These are just a few of the questions this matter raises – and those strike me as in no way unique to sports for the Stoic, but rather the same sorts of questions that can be asked of any interest or activity.

I think the magnanimity aspect is well worth exploring, and I see that as tied into the approach you suggest of treating winning – or even just playing well – as a preferred indifferent.  I’d also point out that for the classical Stoics, magnanimity is one main sub-virtue of the virtue of courage or fortitude, and that seems like an area full of potential.

There is a lot more that could be said about all of this, and I’m hoping in our dialogue we’ll explore a good bit more of that ground that can be covered (or uncovered) – maybe get up the field into scoring position, eh!  Thanks very much for writing me about this, and spurring me to think a bit more about this interesting, frustrating, and perhaps paradoxical commitment we both share with respect to our favorite teams.

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 3

Hi Greg

Thank you for your commiserations. Anyone out there with knowledge of both American and English football and our respective teams (Green Bay Packers and Spurs) to let us know who deserves the most sympathy?

To recap: After my team (Spurs) were humiliated last week, I suggested a number of things that might help:

  • Marcus Aurelius’s deconstruction (“it’s only a game”)
  • magnanimity (“well played the opposition”)
  • treating the result as a preferred indifferent (“I would like my team to win but it’s not the end of the world if they do not”)
  • and understanding that this is a signal that I need to do more work on the discipline of desire and aversion (“let’s get my priorities in life straight ….”).

You agreed with many of my concerns – stressing that we sports fans need to keep a sense of proportion but that we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which perhaps might be the result of taking Marcus’s method of  deconstruction too far.

One way of approaching this is by us exploring the attitudes and behaviours of the Stoic sage.  Would the sage take any interest in sports? 

Marcus has this to say 

From my governor, [I learnt] to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

Meditations, 1.5  translated by George Long

The sage would, I take it,  be concerned with higher things. He (or she) would support neither Spurs nor the Packers.  But now I worry that the sage might be a little over-serious, a little dull. What do you think, Greg?

Finally for today, I would like  to return to your suggestions regarding the way forward. I think we are agreed that some kind of Stoic Values Clarification -which is clearly related to the discipline of desire and to the theory of preferred indifferent- is a good idea so we can get our priorities right. So too is the cultivation of Stoic virtues, including all of the cardinal virtues as well as magnanimity. 

Over the next week I will be especially mindful of how I invest my time and how virtuous (or otherwise) I am when watching or taking part in sports and games. So the next time  I watch Spurs play, I could set myself the task of admiring every example of good play, regardless of who makes it, being particularly appreciative of sporting behaviour.  In this way I could use my interest in sports as an opportunity both to prioritise my time well and to progress in my development of the virtues – “the obstacle is the way”.

Spurs aren’t playing for a week or two, so I may have to try this out with a different activity.

Whilst I am “in the dock” I would also like to confess to a strong interest in the game of contract bridge. I am playing on-line with my partner in a tournament tonight.  I will report back on how I get on – not in the tournament itself, but in my attempt to be a good Stoic.

Do you face any such Stoic challenges – or opportunities – in the next week, Greg?

I hope you have a good week

Kind regards

Letter 4

Dear Tim,

I don’t know that the sage would not be a fan of any team.  It would depend very much on what “being a fan” means, wouldn’t it?  Certainly the rabid, partisan, violence-prone fanaticism that was apparently characteristic of the gladiatorial games and chariot races in ancient Rome – that kind of fandom would be incompatible with sagehood. But I don’t see why a well-proportioned perspective of rational fandom – supporting one’s team as part of a community – wouldn’t be compatible with sagehood. 

After all, we read in summaries of Stoic doctrines (like that of Arius Didymus) that the legendary sage is erotikos  (“a lover”) and sumpotikos (convivial – literally someone who you can drink with), among other things. So it would seem that there ought to be a properly Stoic way to be both a sage and a sports fan.  Or even – since I’m not remotely close to sagehood! – just to be a decent prokopton while also remaining a fan of my teams and of their sports.

There are some questions that this does open up for us.

One of the questions we could ask is what a rational fan should do in relation to the largely irrational words, actions, desires, and decisions of other fans, particularly when these involve something like injustice towards others. 

For example, while the Packers have on the whole a decently-behaved fanbase, let’s say I’m at Lambeau Field for a late-season game against their division rivals, the Bears – a game that matters – and let’s say that after a hard-played game that the Bears win in the last minutes, some of the frustrated (and likely drunk) Packers fans get aggressive with some of the the Bears fans, pushing them around, calling them names, trying to “start stuff”. 

Should I say “well, not within the sphere of my concern!”?  Should I jump right in and intervene within a conflict between people I don’t know at all?  Or should I perhaps say something – if this is possible – to my fellow fans, reminding them of our longstanding reputation for and commitment to hospitality? (Of course, I would probably phrase it in a more earthy manner!)

Or what should we do when we see our fellow fans – perhaps friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – making some heavy emotional investments in matters that are by their very nature entirely out of their control?  Should we remind them that despite all the pageantry surrounding professional sports, the massive amounts of money being spent on them in myriad ways, the flood of information about every aspect of the team, the sport, and so on. . . it’s just a game?  Or while it’s going on, should we take the advice Epictetus gives about what to do during festivals – when the children come clapping their hands, clap your hands as well, rather than being a spoilsport? 

As I think about it, many other questions come to mind, but in the interests of continuing the exchange, and sticking a bit more closely to the topics you’ve brought up, let me steer myself over to those!

I wonder if there isn’t an important distinction to be made, between watching someone else engage in playing a game, and playing a game oneself.  Watching your Spurs play is you as a spectator, perhaps involving some actions on your part – cheering, for instance – but it’s really their game to play, for better or for worse.  Actually being the participant in the game – you being the player in the bridge tournament – that’s much more active, right?  Some of the same basic Stoic principles would be involved, but you do have a lot more, if not control, at least influence or involvement in what happens in the game you’re playing.

Your suggestion about deliberately refocusing upon instances of “good play” and “sporting behavior” – that’s an excellent one, I think.  I can say that for [my wife] Andi and I, as we’ve gradually done more of that in recent years, it has made watching the game more enjoyable for both of us. And it’s a good lesson on the multi-sidedness of events  (or as the Stoics would say, “appearances” or “impressions”).  A play can result in a touchdown for the other team, which might wake winning the game that much harder for ours, or even render it impossible for our team to win, and we can feel disappointment about that.  But that same play might also display the athleticism of the other team’s players, the strategy of their coaches, the cohesiveness of their team – and we can appreciate that regardless of which team fosters those.

I’ll close by saying that my “Stoic challenges” in this week and in the weeks ahead don’t have too much to do with sports.  Instead they have to do with juggling my academic classes (I’m teaching a heavy load this term), my work with clients (I’ve got more than usual), my content production (videos, podcast episodes, etc.), and all my other commitments. One of the aspects of Stoic courage is perseverance – sticking to and seeing through work – and that’s my biggest struggle right now.  I’m trying to do enough work day-in day-out each day, so that I can get myself to the point when I can taper off a bit!

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 5

Dear Greg

Thank you for your latest.. I agree with your thoughts the idea of how to spend our time wisely is broader than just indulging in “trivial pursuits”. Of course Seneca had some wise things to say on all this in On the Shortness of Life. He definitely would have cautioned me to not fritter my life away playing bridge or watching football.   I think too the Victorians, for all our complaints of their distorting Stoicism, are to be commended for their attempts to inculcate virtue into young people through sport – notably cricket.  Kipling’s If is also a good example of the Victorian attempt to adopt this Stoic attitude to life in general  this, as in

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

This conversation has brought up many interesting points. For me, perhaps the main lesson is that Stoicism isn’t just something we do when reading books or making big moral decisions – Stoicism is for all of life.

I have just re-read your Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom and find myself agreeing with most everything you say there. I am still concerned that  watching sports is a gateway to a misuse of time and a contamination of virtue. Yet it can also be viewed as part of a rounded, good life, and an opportunity for plenty of Stoic Tests. Especially if you are a Spurs fan!

Kind regards

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and  Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Marcus Aurelius Anniversary Event

Note: This event is FREE to attend. A donation in any amount will also give you access to the recording after the event.

Organized jointly by Modern Stoicism and the Aurelius Foundation.

Attendance at this event is open to everyone.

Date: Sun 25th April, 12pm EST

Tickets: Payment by donation, amount of your choosing

Format: Zoom (video recordings available later to donating attendees)

Duration: Approx. 3 hours of talks (plus breaks)

All profits (surplus) from this event will be donated to the Modern Stoicism nonprofit organization, which promotes discussion of Stoic philosophy and carries out research on its potential benefits, and to the Aurelius Foundation.


  • Introduction, Christopher Gill, emeritus professor of Ancient Thought, Exeter University, editor of Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, Books 1-6 (OUP)
  • Core Ideas of Marcus’ Stoicism, John Sellars, author of Marcus Aurelius (Routledge).
  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Robin Waterfield, editor of Meditations: The Annotated Edition (Basic Books)
  • Marcus Aurelius, the Man, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St Martins)
  • Perspective: The Modern Relevance of Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations for Professional Women, Sukhraj Gill and Lori Huica discussion with Justin Stead, founder of the Aurelius Foundation

Premeditatio Malorum: Friend or Foe? by Antonia Macaro

Recently I came a bit unstuck. It was to do with a complicated set of circumstances surrounding a house move, which went on and on causing me much anxiety, frustration and occasional despair. If I’d been a good Stoic I might have been able to avoid all that and breeze through it – but then I already knew I wasn’t, and in truth I wasn’t really trying to be. Nor does being a psychotherapist immunise against troublesome emotions.

As I tried to understand what was happening, someone close to me said that my distress seemed connected with long-standing patterns of thought that until now I’d got away with, but that in this challenging situation had come back to bite me. One of these was the deeply engrained habit of dealing with uncertainty by leaping ahead to the worst possible scenarios.

Why did I get into this habit? More importantly, what did it really do for me? The origins of it are probably a mixture of supposedly protective mechanisms, none consciously chosen, rooted in childhood. One of these seemed to have what we could call an “apotropaic” function, which is basically about averting bad luck. The twisted rationale for this is that if you manage to convince yourself that something bad will happen this will somehow stop it happening. This is clearly irrational and not advisable as a self-help strategy. But don’t underestimate its tenacity: once such a superstitious practice has taken hold, trying to dislodge it will feel like inviting disaster, and mindfulness and effort will be needed to make any progress.

One of the main motives, however, must have been to remove the discomfort of uncertainty and protect myself from disappointment. It may seem weird, but sometimes it’s easier to manage the conviction that things will go badly than not knowing how they will turn out. If my cat goes missing for a day, for instance, I immediately tell myself I need to accept he’s gone.

Seneca wrote about how closely intertwined hope and fear are. He quotes the Stoic Hecaton as saying: “You will cease to fear … if you cease to hope.” (Letters, 5) We can eliminate fear by banishing hope. The idea is that if I manage to knock on the head the hope that the cat will come back I can avoid the anxiety about it. This is more or less what I try to do. But it doesn’t really work, as the thought the cat isn’t coming back is upsetting, so I just end up replacing one negative emotion with another.

Seneca also gives some contradictory advice on this: ‘give careful consideration to hope and fear alike; and whenever the situation remains uncertain, do yourself a favour and give credence to the thing you prefer.’ (Letters, 13) From this point of view, when the cat goes missing I’d be better off foregrounding the thought that he’ll be back soon. But if you’re given to mentally jumping to the worst outcome before you even realise it, this is quite hard to do.

The jury is out on whether thinking the worst can be effective in protecting ourselves from disappointment, or whether it would be better simply to deal with disappointment if and when it comes. It seems clear enough that if the thought that things will go wrong ends up causing a lot of distress then the treatment has become worse than the disease.

But wait a minute – isn’t there a practice known as premeditatio malorum (anticipation of evils), recommended by eminent Stoics as a healthy mental habit? What’s the difference between that and my habit of anticipating the worst, which was most unhelpful?

My mental tricks didn’t work because the thought of disastrous events was accompanied by the implicit assumption that if the imagined thing happened it would be awful and unbearable. So, if spelled out, my thought would be of the form: ‘x will happen and that’s awful and unbearable’. This sort of thinking is known as catastrophising and is associated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy approaches, it is seen as involving various distortions:

1. overestimating the likelihood of something happening

2. overestimating how bad it would be if it did

3. underestimating our ability to cope with such an eventuality

These were definitely present in my thinking about the house situation. I thought certain negative scenarios would almost certainly happen and that this would be awful. While I did not tell myself anything explicit about my ability to cope, again the implicit assumption was that I would be crushed by the events.

The correct Stoic formulation would be very different. It would be something like: ‘x may well happen (and if x doesn’t something similar probably will, as we are human beings and as such prone to such misfortunes), but that is fine because the things I’m terrified of are not that important’. This obliterates distortion 2, thus making the other two irrelevant.

There are enough superficial similarities between the Stoic pattern and the catastrophising one, however, for us to be able to deceive ourselves that our erroneous practice of anticipating the worst conforms to an illustrious Stoic practice that is designed to be helpful, when in fact we’re only digging ourselves into a hole.

The Stoic formulation would work if, like a proper Stoic, you managed to withdraw attributions of good and bad from any ‘externals’ (basically anything other than virtue and vice). But what if, like me, you struggle with that idea? Then the technique might work for things that are easily classed as unimportant, but definitely wouldn’t for those that we perceive as central to our life. For me the latter include home, for instance.

It would be useful therefore to explore constructive ways of adapting the premeditatio malorum for those who are not fully-fledged Stoics. A tweaked premeditatio could serve a very useful purpose by challenging two crucial assumptions that are likely to lie behind the anxiety: a. the thought that it would be awful if certain things were to happen, and b. the fear that we would not be able to cope with them if they did (points 2 and 3 above).

a. The first tweak, like the original concept, concentrates on questioning the thought that if x happened it would be awful. Now if we’re not Stoics we may well judge that a few catastrophic events really would be terrible, and there is little point in trying to convince ourselves that in fact these things don’t matter. For those issues we’d be better off focusing on our fears about not coping, which we’ll come to shortly.

But even non-Stoics should be able to recognise that many of the things we distress ourselves about have come to matter too much. I certainly feel I would benefit from challenging just how important home should be for a good life. It does have some importance of course, but I now see that how I live my daily life matters more than what exact ‘container’ I do it in.

I also believe the Stoics are right in pointing out that placing too much significance on something that is not in our control leaves us vulnerable to the whims of fortune. In this respect a less demanding source of inspiration is Hume. Under the influence of Stoicism, Hume undertook

the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life.

Letters of David Hume, 1, 3

Hume believed that in small quantities this kind of reflection had a positive effect. But he became aware that too much of it ‘wasted the spirits’ and ended up having a detrimental effect on his health. He concluded that that the Stoics were ‘too magnificent for human nature’: ‘Philosophers have endeavoured to render happiness entirely independent of every thing external,’ but ‘That degree of perfection is impossible to be attained.’ Not only is this unattainable, it is also undesirable, as it would involve renouncing or becoming suspicious of some central human experiences that make life worth living.

A more modest but realistic goal for him was to ‘endeavour to place his happiness on such objects chiefly as depend upon himself’. (‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion’, 3; my italics) This is subtly but importantly different from making one’s happiness rest entirely on what is in one’s control. If we were to follow Hume in this we would acknowledge that living a full life entails some loss of independence, but at the same time we would commit to checking frequently whether we have become too dependent on something outside our control.

In a nutshell, since few things are truly awful, we could benefit from challenging how much we have allowed external things to dominate our life.

b. The second tweak focuses on how we respond to the possibility of negative events happening. The general approach is expressed in the following thought: ‘x may happen and if it does it’s really not great but perhaps there is something I can do to prepare for that eventuality, and anyway I will find ways of dealing with it’.

This approach rests on our ability to think ahead to possible threats. This is important for our survival, and may have been crucial in our evolutionary past. In support of this point, psychologist Roy Baumeister has argued that bad events have a much greater impact on our life than good ones. But while it can certainly be overused, that ability may still be useful in moderation. Anticipating potential problems can be helpful if it helps us to prepare for them, for instance.

‘Defensive pessimism’ (see Julie Norem, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking) starts from the idea that there are circumstances in which positive thinking – convincing ourselves that everything will be rosy and we will experience no challenges – is not the most helpful strategy. Instead, a form of negative thinking can be most beneficial. In particular, we are encouraged to consider specific outcomes we are anxious about and take steps towards countering or ameliorating them.

But ultimately it is confidence in our own ability to deal with negative circumstances that is the most useful asset. Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy places a lot of emphasis on learning to tolerate scenarios in which things don’t turn out as we’d like. In Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Albert Ellis describes as irrational the idea that ‘it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.’ He advocates changing a thought such as, ‘How terrible this situation is; I positively cannot stand it!’ to something like: ‘It’s too bad that conditions are this frustrating. But they won’t kill me; and I surely can stand living in this unfortunate but hardly catastrophic way.’

When the much quoted admiral Stockdale was asked about the value of different coping strategies in relation to his time as a POW, he apparently replied that it was the optimists in the camp who had fared badly, those who thought they were going to be out by Christmas, because they were not prepared when that didn’t happen. Instead, his approach was to be brutally realistic about not being out by Christmas, but unwaveringly confident about his ultimate ability to prevail. (This is sometimes called the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ but is not actually much of a paradox. It just shows we can be pessimists in one respect and optimists in another.)

Note that none of this is simply about protecting ourselves from disappointment, or avoiding anxiety by replacing uncertainty with a grim kind of certainty. Instead, the take home message is that anticipating the worst can help us to prepare, either by taking practical steps to improve the situation or by developing healthy strategies to cope with it. Coping strategies could involve finding ways of getting support, for instance, or of managing emotions. There may be times when the best we can do is reassure ourselves that people cope with worst things and we’ll cope too.

So the next time you find yourself going over worst-case scenarios ask yourself in what spirit you are doing it. Check that the practice you have adopted is constructive, and that you’re not falling prey to the seductions of irrational thinking.

Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.

Poster: Stoicon-x Military

The new poster is out for Stoicon-x Military, showing something you’ve never seen before: Socrates in armour. Read my Medium article about Socrates’ military service, and the process we went through with a team of illustrators designing the poster for this event.

Tickets are available now via EventBrite for Stoicon-x Military, starting from only $1 –payment by donation. Book now and you’ll get free access to recordings of all presentations after the event, which takes place 15th May 2021.

Check out the event listing for our full program, which is packed with speakers, including keynote Prof. Nancy Sherman, author of Stoic Warriors and the forthcoming Stoic Wisdom. Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Obstacle is the Way and The Daily Stoic, will be interviewing former US national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. Come along and join us – get your tickets now!