'Fundamentals' by Zachary G. Augustine


from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book

by Zachary G. Augustine

Editor’s Note: The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.


The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.
—Marcus Aurelius[i]

All is a matter of perspective. Or, “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”[ii] Good or bad, you live inside your mind, so you make it so. You must make it good.

Every day you will be confronted with things outside of your control. This is not bad. The things themselves cannot harm you. Rather, you harm yourself when you judge these accidental facts as bad. And so things outside of your control are nothing to regret, or worry about, or fear. When you are faced with something like this, tell yourself: I am freed from the burden of trying to control this.[iii]

It is not enough merely to endure these things outside of your control; you must actively deny their importance. They are not relevant; they are indifferent. In a perfect world, you would be indifferent to indifferent things. But you are so used to calling them bad that your mind is often tossed around by things you can’t control. So you must, instead, reject these external things. To fail to deny them is to tacitly submit to things outside of your power. To remain neutral in the face of indifferent things is to behave in bad faith.[iv] You must, in a way, be active in your denial. Not that they happen – for every day you will face matters you cannot control – but rather, it is the meaning of indifferent things that you must reject, that they hold any sway over you and your actions. And your actions are the only thing you can control entirely.

—Surely you admit that much in life is outside of your control.

Yes, of course.

—Then why do you resist those things?

On the contrary, I neither resist nor welcome things I cannot control. I am indifferent to what I can’t control. Instead, I reject their importance. To welcome them is to excuse yourself for your own failures. This reinforces the pleasant illusion that you are not in control of your own life, replacing it instead with a comfortable falsehood that you’re ‘doing the best you can’, that external factors entirely govern your being. But you are in control, you just refuse to accept it. And to resist them is to delude yourself in a different way, that you can change the will of others, control chance, or refuse the falling rain. This you will never be able to entirely control, and you must accept it, or you will grow frustrated. Instead, you must learn an accurate and precise perception of the world. You must be honest with yourself about this appraisal. Only then, will action become easy, and you will know the answer in every case: if you can change it, do so. If you can’t, you must accept it.

—Even if I do accept that, won’t that just lead me to become complacent – to stop trying to control what I can?

You already know the answer to your question – you said it already. The first step, more important than any other, is recognizing what is within your power. You don’t need to deal with all of those other things right now. In this moment, your only focus is to internalize what we have just discussed. You don’t need to have all the answers, you only need to try to tell the difference between what you can affect and what you can’t. It is so obviously true that there will be things outside of your control, yet constantly we frustrate ourselves instead of accepting them. Watch yourself for this habit, and break yourself of it. Try to recognize this fundamental distinction first, and the motivation to affect what you can will follow, you’ll see. Now, all you need is the desire to get better, and the resolve to put in the effort when it matters.

—Don’t you think that attitude is kind of defeatist? You really believe that you can be happy by giving up control over external things? I think when the time comes, you need your health and your family to be happy. You could lose these at any moment.

You again – don’t you have anything better to do than to doubt yourself? Do you never tire of thinking of the worst outcome? To think that my conscience is such a downer. I swear, you are like a doubting little demon, sitting on my shoulder and questioning my every effort! You’re getting ahead of yourself. You’re missing the point of what we’re working on right now. We’ll deal with all of that later, and you’ll see that it’s not quite as it appears. It’s not as if I can ‘give up’ control over something that was never within my control to begin with. It’s just a matter of perspective, and that’s what you have confused here. It’s only natural, you probably have some mistaken beliefs of your own; I know I probably do.

As for health and family, they are outside of your control, but only in part. You can work on both. But part of this work is recognizing that you might lose them. This is nothing to be afraid of, it’s just a fact. And you should be prepared. In fact, you’re obligated to call it like it is and not pretend that they’ll be around forever. And this fact of impermanence shouldn’t cheapen their value in your mind; it makes your time with them all the sweeter.

I’ll deal with your doubts like I deal with anything else. First, I recognize that I can’t control when your objections appear, or even what they are. It’s natural for you to be a pessimist; I feel that same strain in myself often. In certain situations it may even help me to listen to your caution, as having an active conscience is not a bad thing.

But you can get carried away. So, second, I choose to reject your doubts. Now is not the time and you know it; now is the time to learn, and to do that we have to suspend doubt for a moment and actually try. It’s like anything in life – like a lost set of keys or a broken car – you can’t help when it happens or that it does. But it is absolutely essential to choose how to respond, in every case. It won’t help you to get angry that your car is broken. Worse, it’s counterproductive to get angry: that you couldn’t see it coming, that it’s in the past, that anger won’t fix your car, and that you’re already wasting time getting it fixed and moving on in life. The latter reason, you know, is the only thing that is truly within your control: your response to the perception of a broken car. The ability to choose your response is one of your greatest gifts – it very well may be the secret to happiness. It’s so obvious it hardly needs stating, yet just watch your thoughts. How many times do you make yourself angry through choosing a counterproductive response? You know this to be true. So then you also realize how important it is to spend time on this, even though it’s obvious.

Third and finally, I’ll press on in spite of your doubts. This is the response I choose, and it’s one of action. Changing my perceptions will take practice. But how much more peaceful to be concerned only with those things which I can actually affect.

Through drawing this division in my mind, I will separate the wheat from the chaff and safely discard that which I cannot control. With practice, I can train myself to recognize this more and more easily. Soon I will mold and temper my mind in such a way to accept the stresses and weights placed upon it. If I can make disciplining my judgement a habit, I will flex where previously I would have snapped.  With practice, I will ride the waves of emotion that used to crash around me. I will forego uncertainty and excessive self-doubt for inner peace.


To domesticate your emotions, rather to be ruled by them – to stand up straight, not straightened – is to live in accordance with nature.[v] Only then can you respond properly to that which truly matters – matters of choice. Honest choice and just action are only possible with the clarity of a disciplined mind. So you must start at the beginning – which no one wants to do[vi] – with watching your thoughts and rejecting those judgements of indifferent things.[vii]

There is a fundamental distinction in every human life. Look at your hands holding this book, your body in a chair. Your body is the limit of your control. Outside of it, the world is subject to many other forces, mostly other people but also sickness and inclement weather and the passage of time. All of this cannot be changed. This essential distinction of control is the ultimate principle of Stoicism. It grounds all that is to follow.

Nothing outside of your control can be changed directly. But through memory and foresight, humans have a seemingly unique gift to alter the world now to better suit us in the future. While we can’t control the future, we can prepare ourselves, change our own minds and bodies, so that when the future inevitably but unknowingly comes, we are ready. You can ready yourself for the future, rather than wait for it to come.

At every moment, realize that the present – the remarkable ability to think this very thought – has suddenly passed. That thought in the line above is now more distant. And now, even further buried. But the past, regardless of how past it is, is always irrevocable by simple virtue of it having passed. That is, one minute ago may as well be one year ago, it makes no difference.

So at every moment divorce yourself entirely from the past. Free yourself from the responsibility of remembering it, for either: it doesn’t matter, or if it does matter, its use is separate from the negative feelings that accompany it.

Whenever you find yourself in the present moment – a snap of attention or focus or a simple awareness of the fact of life – look forward, for that present that was so clear a moment ago is already as distant as your childhood. Barrel ahead and make your future what you wish it already was.


To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea still falls around it.
—Marcus Aurelius[viii]

You’re eating lunch with a friend, who refers to you as a stoic kind of person. What, exactly, do they mean? Cold, emotionless, or overly rational is a fair interpretation. (You would be justified in taking offense at this, which would serve the additional purpose of disproving yourself as emotionless. Although, you quickly realize, taking offense solves nothing.)

While commonplace, this use of the word could hardly be further from the truth. The Stoics were intense, but they were not emotionless. Even the English word ‘apathy’ is a mistranslation of a Stoic word (‘apatheia’), which translates literally as ‘without suffering’. If you are truly apathetic, you would be more properly understood as ‘invulnerable’, perhaps even ‘secure’ or ‘free’.

This misunderstanding is telling. In fact, it is illustrative of the true teaching of Stoicism, which feel at times like Buddhism. Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “It is not always the pain per se but the way we see it and react to it that determines the degree of suffering we will experience. And it is the suffering that we fear the most, not the pain.”[ix] Too often, you think that emotions themselves cause problems. (If only you could be less angry, less jealous, more passionate, and so on.) Emotions are natural and cannot be denied or stopped. In themselves, feelings are not bad. It the anticipation and the fear that drives suffering. The mistaken belief that this feeling is bad, or harmful, or permanent. On the contrary, emotions are something to be enjoyed, and embraced, but not let grow out of hand. This is hardly a utilitarian desire to feel less pain – to feel in control is in itself a high form of pleasure. Emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, follow as a natural extension of life, as natural as the bones and muscles that make up our bodies. And all living things can be trained and strengthened.

This ideal state of apathy is available to all. Aurelius writes, “The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.”[x] Aurelius is establishing the second key tenant of Stoicism, that of indifference to indifferent things. Together these two principles of control and indifference inform three disciplines, or active practices, integral to a good life. The three disciplines of judgment, of assent, and of action, each concerned with a different scale and focus, each with their own strategies and mental imagery, but each relying on the distinction between what is within and without your control.

Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.


[i]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Jeremy Collier, 1701, III.9.

[ii]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), IV.3.

[iii] This is no quote I’m aware of, but I would not be surprised if it exists in some Stoic text. I may have read it and forgotten where, which can be said about many of the maxims written here.

[iv] See: Jean-Paul Sartre. Thanks Bart Van Wassenhove for making this connection explicit.

[v] “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “To stand up straight – not straightened.” Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, III.5.

[vi] “But it is not complicated.  It is just a lot of it.  And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made.  Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors?  We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal.  But you don’t care about that.  You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.” Richard P. Feynman, Take the world from another point of view, Television, 1973. quoted in Richard P. Feynman, Curiosity, Digital video, The Feynman Series, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTmGLzPVyM.

[vii] These are the teachings of the Stoic school, particularly the primary sources of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The style of argumentation with your personal demons is a mixture of Aurelius’ Meditations and Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. The deconstruction of Stoic doctrine into three fundamental activities – disciplines of judgment, assent, and action – can be found in Hadot, The Inner Citadel. and the relevant sections on Stoicism in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. I have attempted to mirror this theoretical structure throughout this book, drawing on Alan Stedall, Marcus Aurelius: The Dialogues (London: Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers, 2005). and Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2002) for inspiration in terms of style.

[viii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.49.

[ix]Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Delta trade pbk. reissue (New York, N.Y: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2005), 286.

[x]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.48.

Interview with Zachary

Augustine - Headshot

Stoicism Today: Can you say more about the ‘open-source’ element of this book?

Augustine: Sure.

I mean that the text is freely licensed and free to download. Why is a different story.

From the beginning, I wanted to write something that might help someone who may be struggling. When I was going through hard times, I found this relief in Marcus Aurelius. But I’m hardly a Roman Emperor, and getting your book into the hands of readers can be difficult for anyone. By giving it away, I could help more people and get more readers.

This is why I chose to license the book under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Such a license promotes what I think are positive uses — sharing, printing, remixing, classroom use, quoting in another work, and, hopefully, republishing — while snubbing any negative uses, such as reselling, unauthorized compilations, and piracy. The key aspect of the license is that it is ‘ShareAlike’, so any works based on mine need be licensed in a similar fashion. If a company wanted to take my book and resell it, they could, but they would need to say where they got it and make theirs This is what prevents commercial or otherwise unfair use.

Production-wise, the cover photo was public domain on Unsplash, and the fonts were all open-source projects, too. The result is that new ideas and technology allowed me to more easily present ancient philosophy to modern readers — at no cost to myself during production, or to my readers during distribution.

A final benefit is compatibility with the growing body of ‘open’ content. Copyright today wants to build each thing its own safe and isolated little pond, separate from everything else. But decades of this practice has dried up the ground between all the ponds, making it difficult for anything else to grow there. Those who are lucky or strong enough to build and maintain their own ponds are happy enough, but everyone else is miserable. So those who were left out got together and, little by little, built a tremendous reservoir with thousands of tributaries. Now, everyone who chooses to be a part of this new system benefits from everyone else. Their participation only improves the whole, too.

Stoicism Today: And what about the content of the book itself?

Augustine: Right–it relates somehow!

Just as the ideals of Creative Commons and open-source software purport an almost utopian vision of society, philosophy, too, idealizes its audience. It’s true that not everyone has access to the education, time, or money necessary to read. Despite this, perhaps because of it, philosophy has a long tradition of accessibility. This may seem a little counterintuitive when one considers ‘philosophy’ today. But the philosophy I know — and the philosophy that Stoicism Today also delivers — is by anyone and for everyone. This is what’s unique about Stoicism compared to other schools of thought: a notion that we are all students learning and practicing, however imperfectly, in an effort to better ourselves.

Like a student, a Stoic may revisit the same simple ideas many times in an effort to internalize them. Different than a student, however, a Stoic puts what they learn into action. What you learn changes you through the act of reflection. The philosopher wants to live a good life. In that sense, we are all already philosophers.

Practice becomes very important. One can always practice more to strengthen that most important of muscles: the mind. Thankfully, many Stoics practice by reading, and then rewriting what they found in their own words. This has led to a rich tradition of themes and images common to Stoic texts, a tradition I hope I have contributed to. The sense of practice, rephrasing, and repetition is lends Stoic texts an intensely personal flavour, and why the best of them — your Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Letters of Seneca, and Enchiridion of Epictetus — are actually personal writings. When these ancient authors sincerely express their vulnerability, the result is both empowering and humbling.

This is the experience that I wanted to give a modern reader, even if they hadn’t read a single word of philosophy beforehand. And for those who are more well-versed, I hope that the metaphors, quotes, stories, and historical allusions give philosophy that much more of a living character, and lend an impression more colourful than what a more academic text may offer. In my book, I try to make Stoicism come alive through stories, essays, dialogues, and letters in a conversational tone, just like the original Stoic texts that so many people find comfort in. Just as a Stoic sage might talk himself through a feeling anger welling in his gut, I tried to put this thought process down on paper to show philosophy in action, rather than simply talk about it. This kind of thought process was how Stoics used to practice, to cultivate a defence against all the negative emotions that tend to arise in every day life. And this is how many of them still do.


'Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity' by Michael Burton

Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity

by Michael Burton

A picture taken by Michael himself and used on his blog, accessible here.

Editor’s Note: Unlike some of our posts, this is an extended essay.

You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.

Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.

This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.

Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.

To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.

The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.

It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.

Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:

‘We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.’ [1]

All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.

Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.

This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.

The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.

The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:

‘Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.’ [2]

This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.

Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out: “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”[3]

Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good.  As Epictetus tells us:

‘As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it!’ [4]

Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened.  In the words of Epictetus:

‘Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.’ [5]

Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.

Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:

‘Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.’ [6]

Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.

This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:

‘Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveller takes care of a room at an inn.’ [7]

Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.

This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.

Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:

‘It’s unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfil itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’ [8]

Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.

The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.

An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.

Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:

‘Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.’ [9]

Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization. [10] Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.

To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.

Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way.  Epictetus reminds us:

‘Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.’ [11]

In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.

I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquillity are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.

Michael Burton is a Canadian secondary school teacher who enjoys writing about philosophy, education, or anything else that catches his eye. Michael’s other works can be found on his blog at https://stoicteacher.wordpress.com/. He can also be reached on twitter @stoicteacher.


[1]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.

[2]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.

[3]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.

[4]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.

[5]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.

[6]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.

[7]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.

[8]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.

[9]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

[10]Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.

[11]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Works Cited

Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48.

Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.

Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

'“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship' by Sherman J. Clark

“How now, Horatio?” The Stoic Joy of Physics and Friendship

by Sherman J. Clark

Stoicism is enjoying something of a popular renaissance, as books, blogs, and the like explore the stoic ethics of Epictetus and Aurelius as way of dealing with distress and misfortune. But stoicism is potentially strong medicine; and the cure, if fully digested, may be worse than the disease. Stoic insights, taken seriously, can have troubling implications, primary among which is the possibility that a life of true stoic virtue would be bleak and joyless. If we inure ourselves to distress, as stoic thought has us do, perhaps we also deny ourselves the possibility of joy.

Of course, the potential joylessness of stoic thought can simply be denied or disregarded as people take what comfort they will from a selective application of stoic principles. Those writing about stoicism often adopt this strategy, and simply assert that stoic thought need not be bleak. But hopeful assertions do not make the implications go away; and it is neither appealing nor intellectually honest to take comfort from a philosophy that works only if you do not think about it too carefully. Moreover, coming to terms with the potential bleakness of stoicism also sheds light on other potentially problematic aspects of stoic thought.

Indeed, the potential pay-off of confronting and resolving these questions is not merely a more coherent and attractive vision of stoicism. A deeper vision of stoicism offers an appealing if partial response to the seeming meaninglessness of modern life. If, as Dreyfus and Kelly put it in All Things Shining, Roman Stoicism is grandfather to the nihilism of the secular age, perhaps stoic thought also offers us the means to stave off its unwelcome progeny.

As is often the case with difficult problems, the first step is to recognize its existence and severity. So here I begin by describing how stoic principles, if taken seriously, can lead not just to peaceful apathiea, but beyond that to empty malaise. I then consider the inadequacy of several familiar seeming-solutions to the problem. That allows for the identification of a form of deeply satisfying joy that flows from rather than denies the implications of stoic insights. In the process, it will also illuminate other seemingly strange or discomforting aspects of stoic thought.

The heart of the matter, or so I argue below, is this. True stoic joy—and thus, if one embraces a stoic view of human nature, true eudaimonia—flows not merely from renouncing or conquering concern for indifferent matters. Rather, it comes as a result of an appreciation for and sense of connection with the awesome beauty and order of the cosmos, compared to which the petty concerns of life—pleasure, pain, wealth, poverty, illness, health, fame, death, and the like—are seen as the nothings they are.

On this vision, stoic practices and development should focus not on overcoming distress directly but rather on nurturing our signal human capacity to appreciate and feel connected to the beauty order of the universe. And this we can best do in the company of friends. We thus inure ourselves to distress not by closing ourselves off from joy and from others, but rather by opening ourselves up—opening our eyes and minds to a deeper and more human form of shared happiness and thriving.

Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable?

Stoicism eases distress by reminding us that the things we tend to worry about—wealth, power, physical pleasure, and the like—do not really matter. They do not matter because they are not really ours—not “on us,” as Epictetus cogently puts it. They are not in our control; and beyond that, they are no part of what makes us better or worse as human beings—indeed no part of what makes us human at all. If we allow our happiness to depend on such things, we are neither free nor fully ourselves. So we should not care about those things. Instead, we should care only about what is ours and in our control—our judgements and attitudes and actions.

Moreover, for the thoughtful stoic, setting aside all other, external, things turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because those things are not capable of producing lasting well-being anyway. The mature stoic recognizes that wealth, power, and pleasure are illusory goods—promising satisfactions they are incapable of delivering, and in the process tempting us to stress and worry over the pursuit of things not worth pursuing. And so too are the opposites of these things merely illusory evils. Stoic insight reveals that misfortune, pain, even death, are nothing. So we should not care about such things—not let them worry us.

Much stoic thinking is focused on this aspect of stoicism—learning how to not allow seemingly-bad things to worry or distress us. It is seen as a set of tools for dealing with difficult circumstances. To some extent this focus makes sense. Letting go of the pursuit of fortune and pleasure is easier said than done; and becoming indifferent to misfortune and pain is even harder. For those suffering what they experience as misfortune, or living with stress and worry, peace of mind is a worthwhile goal, and not one easily attain. Nothing I say here is meant to dismiss the value of seeking tranquility through stoic thought.

But here I want to assume that goal attained. What follows? Assume you have freed yourself from worry over things that are neither truly yours not truly worthy of concern. You are indifferent to wealth, pleasure, longevity, and other such false goods; and you have no fear of poverty, pain, death, or other such seeming misfortunes. Now what? Or, given that no one will achieve perfect equanimity, perhaps we should rather put it this way: to the extent that you have achieved indifference to such things, what room is left for joy? If nothing is worth worrying about, what is or can be worth getting excited about?

One possible conclusion—the possibility to which I am seeking an alternative—is that nothing is worth getting excited about. Perhaps the stoic path, if pursued fully and honestly, leads not just to a place of serenity and peace of mind but also to some not-particularly-appealing territory somewhere between apathy and melancholy.

Hamlet is, on this as on so much, illuminating. Without describing the titular Prince as a stoic, which would rather beg the question at hand, we can see that he fully—perhaps too fully—grasps the essential stoic insight that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet II, ii, 247-48. Beyond that, he admires those whose character manifests an awareness of this insight, as evinced by the explicit reasons he gives for loving and admiring Horatio:

                                   ‘. . . for thou hast been—
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’                                                          Hamlet III, ii, 62-71.

We are not told how Horatio has achieved this ideal stoicism; but assume for our purposes that he has done so in the stoic way—by being aware at some perhaps-unexamined level that “Fortunes buffets and rewards” are not worth worrying about.

While we do not see much of Horatio’s inner life, we see plenty of Hamlet’s. And perhaps what we see there shows us what happens when the stoic awareness fueling Horatio’s equanimity is examined, and is followed to its conclusion by a more powerful mind. Hamlet recognizes that the things of this world or not worth worrying about, and recognizes further that this is because they are really not worth much at all:

‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
Hamlet I, ii, 133-34.

So, the question can be framed in this way. Can we be Horatio without becoming Hamlet? And should we want to? Can and should we take solace from the realization that the things of the world do not really matter, without facing the potentially bleak realization that the world and our lives in it are indeed “flat, and unprofitable”?

One possible answer is that we need not worry about the implications of having conquered fear and pain through stoicism, because no one will ever really conquer fear and pain. But that is like saying that we need not worry that we are climbing out of the frying pan into the fire because we will never get out of the frying pan anyway. If we hope that stoic thought can work to conquer distress, we need think about what happens when it does. Moreover, if we confront honestly the potentially bleak fact that the material concerns of this world truly are indifferent, we are then in a position to think about what is worth getting excited about.

Five Partial Responses

Aside from simply denying or deferring the problem, there are a number of familiar and seemingly appealing responses to the potential bleakness of stoic thought. I address five such below. Much more has and could be said about each; but for present purposes the bottom line is that none prove ultimately satisfactory, because none get to the heart of the matter.

The fact that many stoics are joyous

Epictetus, from what we can tell, seems to have been a cheerful enough fellow. And if you attend a conference of modern stoics you will find more cheerful Horatios sharing a pint than gloomy Hamlets bemoaning the meaningless of life. Doesn’t this demonstrate that stoic thought does not lead to bleakness? No. It is hopeful evidence, yes: but it does not answer the question. First of all, we do not know the inner lives of others; and many a cheerful pint-sharer, stoic or otherwise, has been known to face a demon or two when the party is over. More to the point, we have already granted that the stoic path is pleasant enough during its initial stages—when it leads us away from worry and distress. What we want to know is what happens if we continue down the road.

This question could of course be addressed as a matter of empirical psychology. Do people who find comfort and tranquility through stoicism also find apathy and malaise? As difficult as it would be difficult to isolate the impact of stoic ideas from other social and psychological factors, such research would be useful. But it would not resolve the question at hand. Grant that some can adopt stoic ideas a-la-carte, follow the path of stoicism only as far as they find it helpful, and thus avoid confronting the potential implications. Still, thoughtful and intellectual honest stoics will want to know. What happens if one takes stoic thought seriously? Does joy for a stoic require on-going denial and self-deception? Must we, like Claudius, view our philosophy through “an auspicious and a dropping eye”—trying not to confront the implications of what we hope will give solace?

The doctrine of preferred indifferents

A potential response from within stoic thought is the idea of so-called “preferred indifferents.” According this doctrine, although the things of this world are indeed indifferent, it is consistent with our proper functioning as human beings to prefer certain of those things to others. All else being equal, we can better practice virtue and thrive if we are healthy rather than ill, safe rather then in danger, fed rather than hungry. Grant then that the stoic need not scorn the goods the world offers, so long as he or she does not get attached to them—so long as he or she does not really allow those things to matter. But that leaves us where we began—facing the seeming fact that nothing is really worth getting excited about. However well the doctrine of preferred indifferents may serve as an explanation for the stoic’s participation in the ordinary pursuits of life, it provides no basis for him or her to take real joy in those pursuits.

Indeed, unless we are to imagine the mind as a sort of one-way valve—able to take joy from something without sorrowing at its loss—the doctrine of preferred indifferents offers no answer at all to the question of where and how the stoic might find joy. To the extent that stoic thought does its first job, and frees us from concern over worldly things, it thus also brings us face to face with the problem at hand.

Indifferent things as virtue-vehicles

A more promising, if still not-quite-adequate response is that even things that are themselves inherently meaningless can be valuable as vehicles through which we develop and display the virtues that make for a good and authentically-human life. An example, borrowed from Epictetus, is pick-up basketball, which I enjoy. Nothing hinges on the outcome of a game at the local gym or playground. It simply does not matter whether I win or lose—or even how well or poorly I play. But the activity provides a vehicle for the nurturing and display of things that do matter—not just physical skills and fitness, but teamwork, fairness, toughness and the like. These are real and valuable virtues—on stoic terms in particular.

This is an important and overlooked aspect of stoic thought, as it helps explain why the stoic should, as a normative matter, give care and attention to the things of this word, despite their intrinsic insignificance.  It does not, however, answer the question at hand. We still need to know—or may be driven to wonder—whether the virtues so-nurtured are capable of not just engendering admiration but also of bringing joy.

Joy through engagement

Epictetus’s ball game example might make one think that the answer is right before our eyes. While playing basketball, I do not tend to ponder the seeming bleakness of life. Rather, the experience is one that Csikszentmihalyi has described as flow—a feeling of full engagement in the activity and moment. This sort of experience is available not just through sports, of course, but through a wide range of activities that provide attainable but difficult and engaging challenges to occupy our thoughts. This might suggest that the answer to stoic malaise, or to malaise more generally, might simply be that—engagement. And so it might.

But at bottom this avoids rather than answers the question. Perhaps in the end all we can do about the potential bleakness of stoic thought is find ways to distract ourselves from it.  But if we want rather to confront and come to terms with the seeming pointlessness of life, engagement with inherently-pointless things cannot be the only or ultimate solution.

Joy through service

But that in turn suggests a deeper and potentially more satisfying response. Perhaps joy comes not merely through engagement, generally, but engagement with something worthwhile—in particular the service of others. Viktor Frankl put it this way:

“[H]appiness . . .  cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

 At some level, this is the most appealing response. And I would certainly never find fault with anyone who finds joy in the service of others.

But at a deeper level this too begs the question. Help others, yes. But help them do what? Serve a cause greater than oneself, yes. But what cause is worth serving? Recall that the stoic has fully recognized that the things most people care about—money, health, and the like—are not in fact worth caring about. They mean nothing. And to put the matter starkly, helping others do meaningless and pointless things cannot be a satisfying source of meaning and purpose. So then, perhaps the answer is to help others do things that are meaningful? And there’s the rub. We are back where we began—wondering what if anything really is worth doing.

Of course, we can forestall the question, perhaps indefinitely, by focusing on people’s basic needs. Just as one need not confront the ultimate implications of stoic thought while he or she is still just trying to overcoming distress, the survive-focused stoic can forestall the question of what is ultimately worth caring about by focusing on helping people get the basic necessities of life. Helping others—especially with their basic needs—is a good thing to do; no doubt about that. But it does not resolve the problem at hand.

Imagine that you live in world where everyone is entirely obsessed with painting their fingernails as brightly and colorfully as possible. That is how they measure success, what they worry about, and where they seek joy. You, the stoic, find that all completely pointless, and are glad to be free of any distress or worry over your fingernails; but, of course, nor are you able to take much joy from your fingernails. So you long for something more. Now imagine being told that you should find meaning, and thus joy, in helping other people paint their fingernails as rightly and colorfully as possible. Now, that might indeed be the right and best thing you could do, if others do indeed take joy in their fingernails—and if you believe them not capable of better; but it would not answer your problem.

Stoic Joy

The best answer, I believe—and the answer most consistent with stoic thought—is that true stoic joy comes through comprehension, understanding, and insight. The key is to recognize that the thoughtful stoic sees the universe not just as ordered but as awesome. Stoic joy, I suggest, is the joy of comprehension and connection—the deeply human satisfaction one gets from seeing and appreciating how it all fits together, and how one fits into it all.

Indeed one could argue that seeing and appreciating the order and beauty of the universe is not merely a particular good, the enjoyment of which is consistent with stoic principles, but is in fact a central component of eudaimonia. In Aristotelian terms, our distinctive human function as rational agents is the ability and desire to seek reasons for and make sense of our actions, and thus our lives. Thus the centrality of phronesis in Aristotelian virtue ethics.

But perhaps this capacity and inclination to make sense of our actions and our lives is really just a component—a self-regarding subset—of deeper and more distinctively-human capacity to find comprehend and make sense of our world as a whole. Whatever one thinks about the ability of other animals to do things that resemble deliberation, it seem safe to say that we are the only ones who wonder at things with no direct or obvious connection to our own lives. Our signal human capacity is perhaps not merely agency guided by practical reason, but wonder driven by love of comprehension—not merely phronesis but philosophia.

If so, the search for stoic joy is also the best way for stoicism to help us deal with misfortune and distress. Next to the rich and satisfying joy of even partially-comprehending and feeling connected to our awesome universe, the difficulties of life, even death, will be nothing to us. Stoic growth, therefore, should perhaps not be sought primarily through exercises designed to help us deal with distress directly. Rather, perhaps we should focus on learning, and helping each other to learn, how to see our world better and more fully.

Moreover, this shifts our focus outward and away from a self-centered focus on what we as agents do, towards a broader appreciation of a world in which we are just a small part.  It may seem as though the shift from seeing ourselves as feature actors to extras/audience is to diminish our role. But perhaps it is better seen as maturation. We are not child-star divas—only interested in the show if we can be the star. Stoicism is Copernican in this way—helping us understand ourselves better by forcing us to confront the initially-troubling but ultimately-liberating realization that we are not the center of the universe. Yes, “you may contribute a verse,” as Whitman put it; but the key is “that the powerful play goes on.”

If this sounds pale, too-passive, or inadequate, it is perhaps because we have not yet developed the capacity to see and appreciate how powerful the play really is. Stoic thought suggests that if we could only comprehend our world better, we would see that next to the chance to see and share in this exquisite order, the petty concerns of life are nothing at all.


And this helps illuminate how sciences can be understood as virtues. The key first step is to recognize that stoic virtues are not merely persistent habits of conduct. Stoicism is on this point more Platonic or Socratic than Aristotelian, in that virtues are better understood as insights, habits of mind, and resulting capacities. As the stoics framed it, living virtuously and well is a techne and an episteme, grounded in a set of attitudes—in particular an attitude of hypoexairesis, or lack of concern with external goods or outcomes.

The kinds of behavior typically identified as virtues are thus better conceived of as symptoms—external manifestation of internal orientations. Temperance (sophrosyne), for example, is the capacity to eschew what others crave, because you know that those things are not truly worth craving. Temperate conduct is merely what flows from this awareness and attitude. Courage (andreia) similarly manifests itself as the habit of conquering fear, but is more essentially a capacity grounded in an awareness—an awareness that the things people fear are not worth fearing.

Similarly, physics can be described as the capacity to grasp and appreciate the underlying beauty and order of our world. It is a techne and an episteme grounded in awareness of the world’s underlying unity and awesomeness. If so—and if the capacity to perceive and appreciate this beauty and order is indeed the central component of an authentically-stoic and deeply-human joy—then it makes sense to see physics as a central stoic virtue.

This vision is not limited to people who actually do physics at the highest level or for  a living. It suggests rather than the inclination and ability to see how well and wonderfully the world fits together is a crucial and vital skill for all who hope to live well and fully. That said, actual physicists do provide something of a paradigm. If you have ever seen one when he thinks himself on the verge of a breakthrough, you will know what I mean. He cares nothing for the petty concerns of the world. He just has something so much more awesome in view. He feels himself to be getting a glimpse of the cosmos, the logos.

Aurelius, in some sense the grimmest of stoics, devotes the great bulk of his Reflections to what we might call the negative side of stoicism—reminding himself in various ways that the things of the world do not matter and thus should not command are attention and should have no power to disconcert us. But there are two passages in the Reflections in which he explicitly takes up the question of what is worth our attention, and how a person who has fully internalized stoic insights can, by attending to those things, find joy.

The first is at 3.2, where he notes that “if a man has a deeper feeling for and insight into the workings of the whole” even the most common things in nature will have the capacity to bring joy—how grain grows, fruit ripens and decays, bread bakes, beasts feed, men and women age. These things, unnoticed and unappreciated by most, will call out to and inspire a person who is “truly attuned to nature and nature’s works.”

A second passage, at 8.26, is brief, and worth translating here in full:

‘It brings joy to a man to do a man’s true work. And a man’s true work is goodwill to his fellow man, disregard for the motions of the senses, skepticism about misleading impressions, and contemplation of the whole of nature and the things than happen according to nature.’

One word is in this paragraph is worth some attention—ἐπιθεώρησις, which I have translated here as “contemplation.”  This is a rare term in Greek, and one that Aurelius does not use elsewhere. It suggests more that mere observation, or even careful appreciation. There is also a connotation of desire and motivation, as emphasized by the play on the etymologically-unrelated verb ἐπιθέω which means to rush at or pursue. On this reading, what brings joy is not merely passive contemplation or even comprehension, but engaged appreciation.


Like much agent-centred thinking, stoic thought can appear intrinsically self-regarding or selfish. And at one level it is. Focusing on the virtue and thriving of the actor leaves open the possibility that others can be seen as mere instruments though which the virtuous actor achieves eudaimonia. The Roman Stoics repeatedly emphasize the duty to play one’s appropriate role in the community and care for others; but it is not clear that this commitment flows from rather than acts as a hedge against the implications of stoic thought. Moreover, if, as the stoic realizes, one’s own material circumstances—are not really worth worrying about, it is hard to see how other people’s material circumstances should provide any greater cause for concern.

I do not believe it possible to find within stoicism any principle that definitively rules out selfishness or guarantees other-regarding behavior. Eudaimonist thinking does not work that. It is the case, however, that the understanding of stoic virtue described above does offer some hedge against the potential selfish implications of stoic thought.

If stoic virtue as a techne and an episteme grounded in certain attitude and aimed at a deep and satisfying appreciation of and connection to the beauty and order of our world, the virtuous stoic will be driven to concern for and connection for others. This is because the best way to see the order and beauty is with the help of others and the best way to see feel connected to the whole is thought connections with others. Stoicism may not require a sense of shared community responsibility; but it does call us strongly to it.

A desire to comprehend and appreciate the world motivates concern for others in several ways. Above all, learning is best done collectively. Not only do we need the insights of others to help us understand our world better, but our own experience and understanding is best achieved not in isolation but in shared conversation—dialectic. Socrates did not talk to himself. Second, learning calls for institutions and communities in which it can take place.

So, at the very least, our joyful stoic physicist needs a lab, a library, colleagues, grad students, and above all a community in which they can be brought together and brought to bear in the effort to see better and rejoice in the order and beauty of the universe. And if he is thoughtful, he will thus cultivate and care for the community that supports this effort. More deeply, less instrumentally, and framed in terms of eudaimonia, perhaps the full flourishing our nature as not just rational/knowledge-loving but also social/political animals calls on us not merely to see and appreciate the order and beauty of our world but also to engage in shared and mutually-supporting efforts to do so—and to structure our community life in ways that nurture that effort.

Recall also that the stoic joy described here is not just a product of contemplating the universe as if it were a thing apart, but also feeling one’s place in it, one’s connection to the larger whole. Connections then—relationships, friendships, family, love—are themselves a way of sensing the whole. Caring for others joins us to the whole, conquers isolation, and allows for reciprocal connection that can be felt as well as comprehended. Perhaps the true stoic is thus driven to connection and concern for others. And this is especially true if what joins us to others is our shared effort to learn, teach, and see. To Hamlet, Horatio was not just an ideal stoic; he was an ideal friend. And he was first a school friend—a fellow learner.

Consider, finally, the vision of stoic joy offered by Frost in his poem “The Star Splitter.” Near the beginning of the poem, Bradford McLaughlin gives up worrying about earthly things—represented by his farmhouse—which were bringing him little joy. Instead, he makes a dramatic, indeed stoic, turn away from such matters—reframing his concern about the seeming-foolishness of his own conduct as “curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

‘He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.’

Nor does he satisfy his curiosity alone. Near the end of the poem, the narrator joins him.

‘I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.’

In this vision, stoic apatheia is not itself the goal, or even a first step, but rather a consequence. A lack of concern for inherently-indifferent things comes as result of having something better on our minds. Stoic thought is in this sense what Socrates called for in the Republic—a turning of the soul, not a turning off. It is less renouncement than refocus, and thus leads not to apathy but engagement. It turns our attention to something which, if to it we can attune our minds, will not only reveal the meaningless things of the world to be beneath the concern of a human being, but can also reveal in their stead a meaningful and truly human joy.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

'Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox' by Greg Sadler

Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox

by Greg Sadler

Father_and_Daughter_at_RK_Beach_in_Visakhapatnam (1) (1)

Practically every time I’ve taught Stoic philosophy — whether in an Ancient Philosophy class, or more often in an Ethics or an Introduction to Philosophy class — among other texts, I’ve assigned my students Epictetus’ Enchiridion, literally, his “Handbook” — a selection of passages compiled from the much longer set of his Discourses, those hopefully being more or less representative sample of Epictetus’ oral teachings, recorded by one of his pupils and friends.  Invariably, perhaps because it is early on in the text, so it catches the eye of a reader not yet wearied, section three catches their attention, or at least the end line of it.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

To many — including myself — this seems so harsh a sentiment, rigidly consistent, but somehow unduly, unforgivably harsh.  This is a point where, I think, many people, repulsed, conclude that Stoicism is definitely not for them.  If it means abandoning the affection one feels ought to circulate within the family, between wife and husband, parent and child, then perhaps the perfectly free, untroubled, fully rational life that Stoicism holds out as a model is purchased at too high a cost.

Epictetus’ actual position is caricatured in the last line of that section — or rather in our inferences from it — but one would only know that by reading one’s way into his Discourses, rather than by confronting that passage with another chosen from the Enchiridion.  That fact may tell us something important about what was regarded as most important to communicate, to have ready at hand to remind oneself, to meditate upon — what selections made it into the shorter and much more widely read work.

But as it turns out, Epictetus very clearly does think that affection for spouses, children, even for friends or one’s country, is a component of the fully Stoic life — both as part of what the ideal of having one’s moral purpose in accordance with nature demands, and as something that befits our roles, our personae, and the offices and duties aligned with them.

First, though, consider a bit of his wisdom about costs, choices, commitments, and comprehensive ways of understanding and ordering one’s life:

To the rational animal only is the irrational intolerable; but that which is rational is tolerable. . . .  In short, if we observe, we shall find that the animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational; and, on the contrary, attracted to nothing so much as to that which is rational.

But the rational and the irrational appear such in a different way to different persons, just as the good and the bad, the profitable and the unprofitable. . . . But in order to determine the rational and the irrational, we use not only the of external things, but we consider also what is appropriate to each person. For to one man it is consistent with reason to hold a chamber pot for another, and to look to this only, that if he does not hold it, he will receive stripes, and he will not receive his food: but if he shall hold the pot, he will not suffer anything hard or disagreeable. But to another man not only does the holding of a chamber pot appear intolerable for himself, but intolerable also for him to allow another to do this office for him.

If, then, you ask me whether you should hold the chamber pot or not, I shall say to you that the receiving of food is worth more than the not receiving of it, and the being scourged is a greater indignity than not being scourged; so that if you measure your interests by these things, go and hold the chamber pot. “But this,” you say, “would not be worthy of me.” Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I; for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself; for men sell themselves at various prices.

So, one might reason, the price of contentment, the cost of employing my rational faculty or faculties to progressively make my own self, my way of life, my circumstances and relationships more and more fully in line with reason — for none of us start out entirely rational — is that I disentangle myself from whatever natural affections I’ve come to feel.

There certainly is a common image out there of Stoicism that interprets that philosophy, that deliberate mode of existence, along such lines.  A Stoic of that sort effectively withdraws his or her desires and aversions, fears and hopes, loves and hatreds, into him or herself, withdrawing from social or even familial bonds.

But, could that really be the good life, the more rational life, the life in which human beings are most fulfilled?  Epictetus himself doesn’t think so.   As a matter of fact, he addresses the issue of familial affection (philostorgia) at length in one of what might be called his “chew-someone-out discourses.  One of the people who came to consult him confesses:

I am so wretched about my children that lately, when my little daughter was sick and was supposed to be in danger, I could not endure to stay with her, but I left home till a person sent me news that she had recovered.

Epictetus asks him in response:

Well then do you think that you acted right?

And when the father attempts to excuse himself by saying that he acted naturally, he follows up:

But convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly.

The father tries the tack of saying that most fathers behave similarly, to which Epictetus responds:

I do not deny that: but the matter about which we are inquiring is whether such behavior is right; for in respect to this matter we must say that tumours also come for the good of the body, because they do come; and generally we must say that to do wrong is natural, because nearly all or at least most of us do wrong.

Several different senses of the term “natural” are in play here.  The father means by “natural” what most people — good or bad — tend to do.  One can also in this case speak of “natural” affection, concern, or fears towards or for one’s own child.  Then, there is the sense of “natural” as what ought to be the case, what would be most human, most rational, what would lead to or represent full development of a person.

Epictetus leads the man through dialogical question and answer to a point of realization:

Does affection to those of your family appear to you to be according to nature and to be good?

Well, is such affection natural and good, and is a thing consistent with reason not good?

Is then that which is consistent with reason in contradiction with affection?

You are right, for if it is otherwise, it is necessary that one of the contradictions being according to nature, the other must be contrary to nature. Is it not so?

Whatever, then, we shall discover to be at the same time affectionate and also consistent with reason, this we confidently declare to be right and good.

Well then to leave your sick child and to go away is not reasonable, and I suppose that you will not say that it is. . .  

This conclusion itself is an important achievement.  To fail to behave in an affectionate manner, along the lines that, even if one does not feel the appropriate emotion, one ought to act, one would be expected to act . . . to fail in that respect is actually to depart from the Stoic path.  In fact, one ought to feel affection — even though that does lay one in for possible loss, fear, trouble, when one’s child falls ill, or even dies.

Epictetus then continues the line of questioning.  He wants to know whether the father’s action is consistent with feeling affection towards his daughter, an emotional attachment which renders him vulnerable precisely because of the equal vulnerability of the one for whom he cares.

Did you, then, since you had an affectionate disposition to your child, do right when you ran off and left her; and has the mother no affection for the child?

Ought, then, the mother also to have left her, or ought she not?

And the nurse, does she love her?  Ought, then, she also to have left her?

And the pedagogue, does he not love her?  Ought, then, he also to have deserted her? and so should the child have been left alone and without help on account of the great affection of you, the parents, and of those about her, or should she have died in the hands of those who neither loved her nor cared for her?

Now this is unfair and unreasonable, not to allow those who have equal affection with yourself to do what you think to be proper for yourself to do because you have affection. It is absurd. Come then, if you were sick, would you wish your relations to be so affectionate, and all the rest, children and wife, as to leave you alone and deserted?

And would you wish to be so loved by your own that through their excessive affection you would always be left alone in sickness? or for this reason would you rather pray, if it were possible, to be loved by your enemies and deserted by them? But if this is so, it results that your behavior was not at all an affectionate act.

This highlights a critical point, passed over quickly above.  If it is not correct — at least in the case of Epictetus — to say that the Stoics regarded every emotion, every feeling, every affection as bad, it would be equally incorrect, or perhaps even more incorrect to swing to the opposite extreme and claim that every emotion or affection is therefore good.

A measure, a criteria, a sort of weighing and assessing is needed — one teased out by considering what being in accordance with nature really looks like — and Epictetus brings this concerned but off-base father to realize the irrationality of his own emotions, or, more properly, his response, what he does with and from his emotions.

This is far from an isolated or singular discussion, and Epictetus raises and explores similar issues, having to do with affection, familial or otherwise — in ways that display a much more favorable attitude towards such bonds than the first passage might seem to suggest — in many other portions of the Discourses.

Consider then that line again:

If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. 

Epictetus is not telling us: hold yourself back from your spouse, your child — or by extension, your parent, your friend, your family-member, your comrade, your lover, your companion, even your pet.

He is not counseling a cold prudence that calculates affection in the coin of probable loss, and therefore is never really there, present to the other, bonding with her or him.

He is emphasizing that we ought not imagine things — and likewise people — to be otherwise than they are, even if that fantasizing helps stave off the awareness that everything could be taken away at any time, the anxiety that this realization can produce or reveal.  We should look reality in the face, but also look our loved ones in the face in doing so, lovingly if we can, or affectionately at the least — to look at them as human, in the way a human ought to.


This post was originally published in Orexis Dianoētikē, Dr. Sadler’s main blog.

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, speaker, ethics educator, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 24,000 subscribers and 2.3 million views.

'What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections' by John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections

by John Sellars

John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). Some scholars have tried to downplay this remark, suggesting that as a rule members of all the Hellenistic schools had a strong sense of loyalty to the school’s founder, in this case Zeno of Citium.

Zeno founded the “school” in Athens around 300 BCE, after having studied with the Cynic Crates, the Megarian Stilpo, and Polemo in Plato’s Academy (Diog. Laert. 7.2). It was not Zeno but, so the story goes, the school’s third head Chrysippus of Soli who really developed Stoicism into a systematic body of thought. Chrysippus is reported to have written some 705 books (7.180). As Diogenes Laertius put it, “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa” (7.183). However the idea of a philosophy as an abstract system of thought is very much a modern one, gaining currency in the eighteenth century, even if the Stoics did emphasize the unity of their own philosophy (see e.g. Diog. Laert. 7.41-3). How unified Chrysippus’s “philosophy” was remains an open question. One of our most important sources is the later Platonist Plutarch who quotes seemingly contradictory passages from works by Chrysippus in order to show the contradictions inherent in Stoicism. Yet it is almost impossible to judge Plutarch’s claims when the quotations are all out of their original context. Contradictory passages might come from works written decades apart, for instance. If Chrysippus was the great philosopher many in antiquity claimed him to be then surely he could have developed his views and changed his mind over time. There may never have been a single unified thing that we could call “Chrysippus’s philosophy” consistently maintained over 705 books, even if some subsequent Stoics may have tried to summarize that vast output.

In the ancient world and for a long time after, histories of philosophy were written as histories made up of philosophers, not philosophies, with those philosophers grouped into schools. The story of the Hellenistic Stoa is above all a story about a series of individual philosophers who self-identified as “Stoics”. Initially this reflected the fact that the founding members of the school met at a particular place, the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in Athens, but over time came to reflect a commitment to a shared set of philosophical views. (It is worth noting that Zeno’s earliest followers called themselves “Zenonians”, only adopting the name “Stoics” later on (see Diog. Laert. 7.5). The change perhaps reflected a desire not to be bound by the doctrines of the founder.) Even so, as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another. Well-known examples include Aristo of Chios on the distinction between different types of “indifferents” (Diog. Laert. 7.160) and Boethus of Sidon on the cosmos being a living being (7.143). These both look like central Stoic doctrines, yet neither of these Stoics felt compelled to leave the school and they were not forced out by those they disagreed with either. Aristo is forever labelled a “heterodox Stoic” but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.

We might wonder whether there was indeed a core set of philosophical views to which all Stoics subscribed, or simply a set of philosophical family resemblances that meant no one doctrine was sacrosanct, or perhaps just an ever-developing tradition of thought that happened to be able to trace a line of succession back to Zeno’s gatherings at the Painted Stoa. However one might try to answer that question, the point I would like to make here is that the Hellenistic Stoa was itself a developing tradition of thought, founded by Zeno, strongly identified with Chrysippus, but embracing a wide range of other philosophers too, from Aristo and Cleanthes to Panaetius and Posidonius. In traditional accounts Panaetius and Posidonius are presented as so-called “Middle Stoics”, heterodox and eclectic when compared with their predecessors. The extent to which Posidonius, for instance, was heterodox has been challenged in recent years, but even if he were, the preceding variety and dispute within the school would not make him out of place. (To repeat: this is what philosophers do, they argue among themselves!) Even in the Hellenistic period, then, Stoicism was a rich and diverse movement, a complex living tradition.

The living tradition of masters and pupils who could trace their lineage back to Zeno was over by the end of the Hellenistic period. The last recorded heads of the school were Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Cicero, Acad. 2.69). Cicero, who wrote our earliest and in some ways most important accounts of Stoicism, visited Athens at a time when the Athenian schools were more or less at an end, but he did manage to attend the lectures of Posidonius in Rhodes, making him one of the last people to have first hand knowledge of the Athenian Stoic tradition. The first few centuries of our era saw many philosophers who explicitly identified themselves as Stoics but they now depended on texts for their knowledge of Athenian Stoic philosophy.

One of the first and most famous of these “text-based Stoics” was Seneca. Seneca embraced the title “Stoic” but was happy to draw on ideas from Epicurus when he found them reasonable (again: he was a philosopher, not a religious convert). He also studied in the philosophical school of Sextius, via whom he adopted a number of Pythagorean ideas and practices (and many of the practical exercises that Seneca exhorts and people now think of as distinctively “Stoic” in fact had their origins in Pythagoreanism). So Seneca drew on ideas from a number of sources but chose to self-identify as a Stoic. He was also in close contact with a number of others who embraced Stoicism, including his nephew Lucan, Cornutus, and the poet Persius who is reported to have owned a collection of more or less all of Chrysippus’s works. This was a new, local Stoic community of friends.

Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome and his lectures were attended by a slave called Epictetus, who would go on to found his own school in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece after gaining his freedom. Students at Epictetus’s school studied works by Chrysippus, while continually being reminded to apply Stoicism to their daily lives. Reports of Epictetus’s lectures were recorded by one of his students, the historian Arrian, and these proved to be a decisive influence on the young Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own notes “to himself” towards the end of his life. Again we see a mix of what we might call “text-based Stoicism” and the creation of new Stoic communities.

The texts of Chrysippus were still readily available during this period, as we can see from the frequent quotations in authors such as Plutarch and Galen; by late antiquity these were seemingly all lost. Since then the reception of Stoic ideas has been closely bound up with the transmission of texts either by later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) or by other, often hostile, authors reporting Stoic views. In the Latin West the principal sources were always Seneca and Cicero.

The reception of Stoic ideas since antiquity has differed from Roman Stoicism in two ways: first, later readers have taken Roman authors as their main source of information rather than having access to works by the Hellenistic Stoics; and second, the vast majority of those readers were for a very long time sincerely or otherwise publically committed to Christian doctrine and so did not affirm every Stoic idea they encountered. They welcomed some doctrines but rejected or were silent about others. In this they were no different from the Roman Stoics themselves or even many of the Hellenistic Stoics, as I have tried to show.

What does all this mean for the question “What is a Stoic?”? Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

The phrase “modern Stoicism” is a perfectly good one for referring to the recent upsurge of interest in Stoicism as a source of practical guidance for everyday life. It indicates that people don’t claim to be resurrecting an ancient system of thought as a whole, but instead taking what they find useful and applying it in a modern context. However it would be a mistake to think that “modern Stoicism” might be defined as a set of doctrines, in some way abstracting the core ideas of ancient Stoicism and updating them for the modern world, against which individuals might in some way be judged as “Stoics” or not (and which itself might be judged as not properly “Stoic” enough). Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

'Modern Stoic Responses to Terror' by Kevin Kennedy

“Barbarians at the Gates.” Stoic Responses to Islamist Terror and the Refugee Crisis

by Kevin Kennedy

This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?
This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?

Blood on the streets of what had just been peaceful neighbourhoods. The mutilated bodies of men, women and children, innocent victims of sudden violence, strewn among the wreckage. The survivors, wounded and terrified, trying to understand what has just happened to them. Only slowly will they realize that their lives have been shattered forever. But the state then responds quickly with all the armed force it can muster.  The perpetrators are either killed on the spot or hunted down and taken prisoner. Those captured are then sent to the capitol, where they paraded before a jeering crowd before being publicly executed. As readers will surely realize after the last sentence, this is not a description of the recent terror attacks in Paris. The event referred to is instead the invasion of the Roman province of Pannonia (the upper Danube region) by the Marcomanni and the Quadi (ancient Germanic tribes) sometime between 167 and 170 CE. The “Marcomannic Wars” (ca. 167-180)  in no way prefigured the current conflict with the terror group Daesh (better known as ISIS). Nevertheless, those of us interested in Stoic philosophy may find it worthwhile to consider how second-century Romans, living during the final flourishing of Stoicism in the ancient world, responded to a violent attack on their own way of life.

The Historia Augusta claims that the Marcomannic Wars had “surpassed any in the memory of man.” The Romans themselves, accustomed as they were to war, brigandage and violent crime, were shocked by the brutality of the attack. Even though the fighting never came close to the city of Rome itself, panic still broke out there, for this was the first time that Italy had been invaded in over 260 years. The man who had the task of repelling the invaders was the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 160-180 CE). Today Marcus is far better known as a philosopher than a warrior. While the Marcomannic wars have long been forgotten, Marcus’ philosophical journal, the Meditations, still enjoys great popularity. But Marcus spent much more of time fighting than philosophizing.  His valiant yet frustrating attempts to pacify the region only ended with his death. In the year 176 CE, however. Marcus decided he had achieved enough success to hold a triumph in Rome, which he celebrated together with his son and successor Commodus (reigned 180-192 CE). Victorious but traumatized, the Romans would never forget the Marcomannic onslaught. Proof of this can still be seen in Rome today at the Palazzo Colonna. Dominating this square is.the “Aurelian” column, dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and his triumph over the Marcomanni and the Quadi. The column, originally erected at the Campus Martius, the “Field of Mars” (dedicated to the Roman god of war), is some 30 metres tall. Running down the entire length of the column is an elaborate relief, comprised of many scenes from the wars Marcus fought: terrified women and children fleeing the attackers, the savage combat between the legions and their foes, as well as the gruesome retribution taken by the victorious Romans. To the side, impassively viewing the suffering, fighting and dying, is Marcus Aurelius himself. The Romans had repelled the “barbarians” — at least for the time being — and restored their sense of security. And how will we in the West today, the cultural heirs of Rome, confront our own security threats?

Comparing the Marcomannic Wars to 21st century Islamist terror may sound far-fetched. The Germanic invasions posed an existential threat to the Roman Empire. The attacks carried out by Daesh, however horrific, do not, as yet, have the power to bring about the decline and fall of Western civilization. And yet, this is exactly the comparison being made right now. Just as Rome fell because it allowed too many Germanic people to live within its borders, it is argued, so contemporary Western society is now threatened by its many Muslim inhabitants. Such rhetoric is not only coming from private citizens opinionating in their personal blogs, but also from serious thinkers writing in respected media sources. The well-known but controversial historian Niall Ferguson, for instance, compares the West to a tottering empire. As he views it, the distant shock to this weakened edifice has been the Syrian civil war, though it has been a catalyst as much as a direct cause for the great Völkerwanderung of 2015. As before, they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia — but this time they have come in their millions. Without using the actual word, Ferguson portrays the refugees as the new barbarians: an alien people who practice a religious faith hostile to Western values. His conclusion is clear. We should fear these people, prevent more of them from coming to our homelands, and roll back the influence of those who are already here. Otherwise we shall suffer the fate of the Romans.

Stoicism Today is a forum for philosophical matters; therefore the cogency of such arguments, as well as the proper political responses to terrorism and migration, must be discussed elsewhere. But there is a Stoic aspect to these matters. Like the ancient Romans in the aftermath of the Germanic invasions, many of us today in the West now live in an atmosphere of  fear and anger. The desire to eliminate threats to our physical safety and to punish those who assault us is natural.  As the ancient Stoics admonish us, however, we must not allow primordial passions to guide our thinking, but reason and practical wisdom. Stoics recognize the need to take a step back from our emotions, examine the representations of reality they create, and analyze their accuracy before formulating a reasoned response. Regarding the subject at hand, what is it exactly that demands a response from us? If we are not members of the military or the police, then most of us are only personally affected by the crisis when we personally encounter the refugees fleeing their homes in Syria to seek safety and shelter among us. And Stoic philosophy can be of great benefit here.

The greatest Stoic teacher we know of, Epictetus (lived c. 55-135 CE), claimed that Stoic principles make love in a house, concord in a state, peace among nations and gratitude to God (Discourses, Chapter V). That is to say, Stoicism holds out the promise of the community of all humankind. The goal of Daesh, however, is to destroy that community by sowing discord between Muslims and non-Muslims. As a BBC-journalist recently wrote, To maintain the flow of recruits in the long term, the jihadists need to make Muslims feel more vulnerable and alienated in Western societies. The greatest individual contribution a Stoic could make toward establishing world peace would be to cast aside his or her own fears and welcome all those now fleeing from violence and terror in the Middle East.  The presence of the refugees already here, as well as the fact that many more are on the way, are matters that lie beyond our personal control. What is up to us, however (no matter how we believe the refugee crisis should ultimately be addressed), is to show them the kindness all Stoics are expected to show every inhabitant of this planet. As Marcus Aurelius said, Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you. True, some terrorists may have hid themselves among the refugees. Reason nevertheless dictates that the majority of them have fled their homes because their lives were threatened. The few cases who might pose a danger to us are a matter for the authorities. Meanwhile, In order to live with the uncertainty, we need to have the courage of our convictions.

The problem is that we too often tend to cast aside our Stoic principles when remaining true to them requires an effort on our part.  As Epictetus also said, We indeed are able to write and to read these things, and to praise them when they are read, but we do not even come near to being convinced of them. (Discourses, Chapter V). The author of the essay you are now reading is as guilty of this failing as anyone else. I  live  in Germany and Sweden, the two European nations accepting the greatest number of refugees. (Sweden, with only 9 million inhabitants, has taken in more Syrian refugees per capita than any other country.). When I encounter refugees with what I would consider stereotypical features of conservative Muslims (men with beards, women with headscarves), I have to confess that my first reaction is a sense of unease. Who are these people? Why are they here? What do they believe? But then I try to step back and consider the soundness of my immediate reactions. Am I the type of person to judge others by their outward appearance? After all, my own grandmother never went out of the house without a headscarf, and she was a devout Protestant. Moreover, when I’m out on the streets of Gothenburg and Berlin, I see bearded hipsters by the score. But I have no fear of grandmothers or hipsters. What have these refugees done to deserve my apprehension? Are they not here precisely because they didn’t want to live in a land dominated by extremism? They have taken on incredible hardships to get here. (Many of them don’t get here at all.) While it is safe to assume that the refugees I see on the streets don’t share all of my values (which is the same case as with almost all of the native Europeans I meet), I have no rational reason to believe that they pose a threat to me, my family and friends, or European society in general. The immediate representation of “Muslims” in my head does not correspond to the reality of the individual before my eyes. These people are not barbarians. They are human beings.

Maybe now, more than ever, we need to rethink some famous words from that ancient “anti-terrorist” fighter Marcus Aurelius. They have been quoted time and time again, usually in reference to the tribulations of our daily lives. But before we reconsider them, let us imagine Marcus himself, a soldier who knew battle, blood and death. His experiences in war also found their way into his Meditations: Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to? When Marcus challenges us to remain decent despite the most unspeakable horrors, he speaks from experience. He prosecuted his wars with all the force needed to vanquish his enemies. But there is no evidence that he ever punished an entire people for challenging Rome. (As was common practice among Roman emperors and generals.)  And now consider this, perhaps the most powerful passage from the Meditations, in light of our own situation. Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say, rather, ‘How lucky I am that this has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.”

Kevin Kennedy is a 53-year-old German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He live with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.

'Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death' by Elen Buzaré

Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death

by Elen Buzaré

Editor’s Note: Here are the PowerPoint slides of Elen’s presentation at Stoicon 2015, along with a PDF of instructions to introduce you to anakhoresis.

Click here to download the presentation: Body soul and spirit in Stoic and Christian meditation

Click here to download the PDF on Anakhoresis

After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops  an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations. She also created  Yahoo ! Discussion group named Stoici Amici for French speakers. You can join here

'The Stoic Worldview' by John Sellars

The Stoic Worldview

 by John Sellars

Editor’s Note: This is a workshop that John Sellars ran at Stoicon 2015. The Stoicism Today team is endeavouring to have as much material as possible from Stoicon as possible posted on here, and this is the first piece

In my workshop at Stoicon 2015 I talked about Stoic physics and about its relationship with what we would today call religion and science. My aim was simply to try to give participants a sense of the broader ‘Stoic worldview’ beyond their practical advice about how to live well.

I. Bodies

The Stoics begin with the claim that only bodies exist (Cicero, Acad. 1.39). Everything that exists is a physical thing. Anything that has any kind of causal power must ultimately be a physical body. So, if the Stoics claim that virtue impels us to act, for instance, and so has some causal power, then virtue must be a body. And they think it is: virtue is an excellent mental state, i.e. the physical soul organized in an optimal way. Closely connected to this claim that only bodies exist, the Stoics reject the existence of universals (i.e. Plato’s Ideas or Forms). Only particulars exist. So when they talk of ‘virtue’ they are not talking about some general concept or abstract ideal, which doesn’t exist, but rather about specific virtuous actions or specific optimal brain states. (Talk of brain states might sound anachronistic but it is pretty much what they have in mind.)

II. Breath

They go on to claim that all bodies are composed of two principles or aspects: matter and ‘breath’ (pneuma) (Diog. Laert. 7.134). Matter is passive; breath is active. Breath is what makes things alive, and because everything is composed of both matter and breath, everything is alive. Breath comes in a variety of degrees of ‘tension’ (tonos) and the greater the tension the more complex the object. Inanimate objects such as stones have the lowest level of tension; living things such as plants have a higher degree; animals with the powers of sensation and movement are higher again; adult humans with rationality have the highest degree of tension. The higher the tension of the breath, the more complex the living organism will be (see Philo, in Long-Sedley 1987, 47P-Q). An important point here is that there is no difference in kind between a stone and a human being, only a difference in tension of breath (we might say a difference in internal organization or structural complexity; A.A. Long once proposed ‘wave-length’ as a way of thinking about this).

III. Nature and God

The physical world, Nature as a whole, is a continuum and is infinitely divisible; the divisions between physical objects are to an extent only relative. Ultimately there is just one physical thing, Nature, of which we are all parts. The breath that structures and animates all of Nature the Stoics call ‘God’. Some sources say God is the breath, the soul of the world, just as the breath in our bodies is our soul. Other sources identify God with Nature as a whole, with the breath being his soul and the matter his body (the difference is between God being an animating force within Nature or simply being Nature). So, Nature is a living organism comprised of a soul and a body, breath and matter, and because, by definition, there is nothing greater than this, it, if anything is, must be God. On either view, we are fragments of God. If God is the world soul, the breath animating all of Nature, then the breath that animates us, our soul, is simply one part of that.

IV How Religious?

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss. However the idea of a divine breath permeating Nature would later influence the Christian idea of a Holy Spirit (pneuma), and then would be interpreted by Church Fathers and others looking to harmonize Stoicism with Christianity right through to the seventeenth century. Perhaps that afterlife gives Stoic accounts of pneuma stronger religious overtones than they originally had. It is very hard to know. But again, Cleanthes’ Hymn appears quite sincere.

V. How Scientific?

When the Stoics developed this idea of the soul as breath permeating the body they were doing so in dialogue the science of their day. In the image they give of the human soul comprised of a commanding centre with tentacles spreading pneuma (breath) throughout the body was inspired in part by the work of early anatomists (esp. Praxagoras; also Erasistratus) who were cutting open bodies and finding arteries and nerves. Chrysippus located the commanding centre of the soul in the chest (following Praxagoras), which of course contains the heart and arteries leading off it that spread through the entire body. (Praxagoras thought that arteries were pipes also connected to the lungs, carrying pneuma.) A later Stoic disagreed with Chrysippus and said the commanding centre of the soul was in the head, which of course contains the brain with nerves leading off it spreading through the entire body. This shift in position may well have been prompted by further observations (i.e. dissections): the distinction between arteries and nerves was still unclear in Chrysippus’ day and he commented that the scientific evidence was only tentative and one ought to wait for further discoveries. The important point to make here is that all this talk of a soul pervading and animating the body was actually part of a first step towards developing an account of the brain and nervous system. As crude as it may have been, this was a theory based on the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the day.

VI. Some Concluding Comments

The Stoics give us arguments for why we ought to think that Nature is rational, alive, and intelligent. We have those properties, nothing without those properties can give birth to something with them; therefore they must be properties of Nature (Cicero, Nat. D 2.22). (There are philosophers of mind today who continue to argue against the claim that consciousness could be an emergent property.) The Stoics then call this living Nature ‘God’. If Nature (or the Cosmos) encompasses everything, and if only bodies exist, and if God is something than which there is nothing greater, then it looks as if God must be identified with Nature. God cannot be anything lesser than Nature and cannot be anything outside Nature. However it remains difficult to know how seriously we ought to take this: is it a devout pantheism (you really ought to worship Nature), simply a deflationary use of language (when you say ‘God’ what you really mean is Nature), or a cautious pragmatism (rather than deny the existence of God, let’s call Nature ‘God’)? We do know the Stoics repeatedly engaged with (what we would now call) the science of their day: Chrysippus drew on the anatomist Praxagoras, the Stoic Posidonius studied botany and geology, a later Stoic, Cleomedes, wrote on astronomy, and Seneca wrote not just his ethical works but also his Natural Questions (on meteorology). The Stoics wanted to understand Nature because Nature taken as a whole is the greatest thing there is and we are parts of it. They aspired to a ‘smooth flow of life’, which they defined as a life in harmony with Nature, something that will require at least some appreciation of how Nature works. Whether we choose also to call Nature ‘God’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Gaia’ is perhaps less important.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

'Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Sourced here.
Sourced here.

The ancient Stoics never had to worry about problems of biological extinction and resource sustainability on a scale such as ours (although they perhaps noticed the extinction of several species due to the hunts in the Coliseum). But if the newsreels are correct, elephants could be extinct in the wild in as little as four years. All of them hunted to death for their tusks, and sometimes their meat. But if a sage were arguing for saving the wild elephants (assuming a sage would), what would that argument look like? Presumably a Stoic argument for keeping the pachyderms from environmental decimation wouldn’t appeal to the reader’s emotions by discussing the methods in which elephants are hunted and slaughtered for the ornamental value of their ivory. A Stoic probably wouldn’t see anything honorable in inciting pity by merely presenting the gruesome pictures of butchered elephants with their faces hacked off, allowing poachers a larger take of the ivory (since humans routinely slaughter other animals anyway). Boogeymen only scare children. So would a Stoic save the elephants (inasmuch as a Stoic could), considering the severe Stoic doctrine of ‘indifferents’? The fundamental tenet holds that nothing except virtue and vice has any moral value, and that nothing bad happens when any animal dies. Does a sage hold it even when an entire species goes extinct?

Since Stoics typically denied any justice existed between men and animals (or any irrational living thing), it may be objected that this poses a significant problem for any Stoicism-inspired environmental ethics. For instance, Chrysippus ‘excellently remarked’ that everything in the world was created for the sake of men and gods, and that men could therefore use animals for their own ends. In fact, Chrysippus believed pigs’ salty flesh was evidence that they were providentially appointed to be human food! In that case, wouldn’t the Stoics accept the slaughter of elephants for the sake of profit from the ivory trade, or for beautiful ivory decorations and furniture? Or at least in order to eat them?

Unlike an argument for Stoic moral obligations to others, it is difficult to propose one for Stoic natural rights. Our concept of environmental ethics, let alone any modern concept of animal rights, would certainly seem bizarre to them. It is Theophrastus, not the Stoics, who is the patron philosopher-saint of animals. However, it is in the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, what is appropriate, to a rational animal that may give the best reasons to produce environmental virtue ethics, and in turn, provide methods to save the elephants (e.g. by educating ivory-buyers, donating money or providing mercenaries to protect the animals, perhaps even farming them, or much less subtly, commandeering them). The reasons are anthropocentric in that they revolve around what has preferred value for us humans, but for the Stoics who are intellectual kin to the rational principle of the universe, why should that be a refutation?

Hierocles, as an orthodox Stoic, understood the entire universe as an organism. This pantheistic universe is identical with Zeus, and everything in it is a part of Zeus. Humans are also a part of the divine organism, but are different than other living things in that we are imbued with a spark of Zeus’s divine reason. That is, we are a part of the universe that can reason- we participate in Zeus’s mind. We can figure out the way the world works. Ever the naturalists, Stoics observed the nature of every part of Zeus, including the living parts, to understand what is natural and appropriate to them. Humans are no exception, and so the Stoics understood that willingly perfecting that which is appropriate for human rationality and sociability is to be prudent, just, moderate, and courageous. These things make up human virtue, the only human good in the Stoic worldview, and to be virtuous is to have perfectly developed the moral character.

Hierocles takes this to be the best starting point for ethics. To know what is in fact appropriate for humans, and to select them, is of utmost importance for a flourishing life. To live according to nature then, to live virtuously, means perfecting our choices in accordance to what is appropriate to ourselves. Appropriation leads the animal to self-preservation, which in turn leads naturally to concern for externals, including the other people around us. If choosing the correct things for our human nature is our appropriate disposition to external property, and (as humans) if affection is our appropriate disposition to our children, and (as living things) if self-preservation is our appropriate disposition to ourselves, then it follows that we humans must consider our external environment carefully and choose the correct external things for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones. That is, for the Stoics our natural disposition necessarily requires us to be virtuous (prudent/just/moderate/courageous) about externals.

The important part here is to understand our roles as humans, and our moral concern for those around us. The upshot of Hierocles’s philosophy follows from his view of the appropriate acts of a human being- a social, rational animal. Here is his model:

Each one of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles, some smaller, others larger, the latter enclosing the former on the basis of their different and unequal dispositions relative to each other. The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a center, his own mind. The circle encloses the body and anything taken for the sake of the body. For it is virtually the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. Next, the second one further removed from the center but enclosing the first circle; this contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The next circle includes other relatives, and this is followed by the circle of local residents, then the circle of fellow-tribesmen, next that of fellow-citizens, and then in the same way the circle of people from neighboring towns, and the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. (Stobaeus 4.671, 7-673, 11 [Long & Sedley 349-50])

For most, it may seem odd that caring for ourselves leads so naturally to caring for others. However, Hierocles uses the natural sociability of humanity to turn from his view of the human condition (from perception of the world, to self-perception, to self-preservation) to get to the pith of his virtue ethics that considers the fundamental nature of humanity. In his view, in order to progress toward human virtue we then ought to:

…draw the circles together somehow toward the center, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones… it is incumbent on us to respect people from the third circle as if they were from the second, and again to respect our other relatives as if they were those from the third circle. For although the greater distance in blood will remove some affection, we must still try hard to assimilate them. The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person… (Ibid.)

He understands that our social roles, and our affections, endear us to those (in various senses) closest to us more than to those further out, but a good person will vigorously attempt to reduce the moral distance between ourselves and others. So our ability to understand and deliberately affect the world leads us to our obligations. We flourish when we take into account Hierocles’s concept of incorporating the outer rings of social relationships into our inner rings of moral concern. In a sense, we consciously keep moving others into us.

Hierocles’s paradigm, despite its incompleteness, provides general guidelines for the new Stoics two millennia later. Our modern understanding of biological kinship with the other animals (and indeed all life on Earth), along with our modern understanding of our chemical relationship to the Earth,  and the modern environmental challenges our species and many others face would have been enough for Hierocles to add a few more circles to his model had he known about them. At any rate it is enough for the new Stoics to add them, in light of humans’ common evolutionary kinship with the planet. Another great Stoic contemporary of Hierocles, Epictetus, adds to the moral obligation that Hierocles exhorts:

Furthermore you are a citizen of the world and a part of it, not one of the underlings but one of the foremost constituents. For you are capable of attending to the divine government and of calculating its consequences. What then is a citizen’s profession? To regard nothing as of private interest, to deliberate about nothing as though one were cut off [i.e. from the whole].” (Discourses 2.10.1-12 [Long & Sedley 364])

Environmental ethics can (and should) be based on the Stoic concentric circles of moral concern, but would the Stoics themselves have accepted an environmental virtue ethics? Can we call a modern claim Stoic even if the ancient Stoics might have laughed it away? In fact, a moral philosophy that incorporates animals, plant life, and natural resources (however strange this may have sounded to an ancient Stoic ear) may actually be loyal to the implications of ancient Stoic doctrine. Where we can no longer defend the ancient anthropocentric claim of animals and the rest of the world being created for the sake of man, the Stoics today can reinterpret that anthropocentrism to show that self-preservation still leads to universal concern. The Stoic is a person of social action, and there are few problems as universal and deserving of our concern as that of our environmental plight. Admittedly, it still remains to be seen how useful Stoic environmentalism can be by learning what exactly these policies might look like, and how possible or practical they would be to ratify and enforce.

Positing the universe as a super-organism did not end with the ancient Stoic Hierocles, and super-organisms are now seen as biological facts of nature. A Stoic virtue ethics approach to our modern problems deeply considers our intricate connections with our environment, our living universe, and offers us harmony with our extended family and our home: all life on Earth, and our land and air. But how can we begin putting into practice an environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s paradigm that is not trite or sentimental to the point of meaninglessness? Fortunately the Stoic himself provides us with some advice as to how we may get closer to virtue, and to incorporate the distant circles of relationships into our closer ones, by our own inherent impulse to preserve ourselves. The continuation from Hierocles’s quote above becomes our starting point for action:

The principle and practical point has been discussed. But it is necessary to add in also usage in regard to modes of address, calling cousins, uncles, and aunts “brothers,” “fathers,” and “mothers,” and still others “cousins,” in whatever way their ages may run, for the sake of the affection in the names. For this kind of address is a by no means faint sign of the concern we feel for each and at the same time can excite and intensify the above-indicated contraction, as it were, of the circles. (Stobaeus 4.84.23 [Ramelli 93])

In attempting to discover a land ethic the emphasis has typically been placed on utilitarian consequences or the supposed rights of the environment and/or future generations, and the Stoic Hierocles’s paradigm has been woefully overlooked. For our Stoic philosophical ancestors, the problem about choosing to slaughter elephants for the sake of profit, greed, or gaudy ivory decorations would’ve been about what these decisions do to us, to our characters. If the Stoics were to have our modern understanding of evolutionary biology, and therefore a view of the biological relationships we share with all life on earth, they would have incorporated a few more circles into their model. They would not have treated animals like elephants as moral agents with rights, but certainly as preferred indifferents whose welfare we are obligated to take into account, along with our own. The fact that these animals don’t have logos doesn’t mean that we have no obligation toward them. There is in fact a heartening anecdote about the Stoic Cleanthes who, counter to some other Stoics, changed his view on non-human animals when he observed that ants “possess the elements of reason” in their interactions with members of another colony. Knowledge gained through observation changed Cleanthes’s opinions. We’ve learned much more about our natural world through human observations since the early Stoics, and we should also revisit and, if necessary, revise the old doctrines. Like Seneca quipped, “Zeno is our friend, but Truth is a greater friend.”

In a very real sense, separated by mere chance, time, and circumstance, other animals on this planet are our kinsmen, and even plants are our (no longer so distant) cousins. In another sense, the Earth is our mother and the universe is our City, its ruling faculty is our Father Zeus. The new Stoics, per the advice of Hierocles, can start by using inclusive terminology when referring to the outer circles of our ecological family, and educate the young in our inclusive paradigm of progression toward virtue: how social, rational animals ought to behave toward their family members and their surroundings. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically… [We] are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” The ancient Stoics agreed, and added that we are responsible for our world, insofar as our judgments and choices are involved. The upshot is that Stoics need not challenge the most fundamental doctrines in order to find reasons to protect the fellow-inhabitants of our planet and universal city. Human oikeiosis provides perfectly good motivation to take care of our land and resources. I challenge you new Stoics to conduct your ‘appropriate actions’ by implementing Stoic environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s concentric circles of moral concern and, Zeus permitting, save our elephant kinsmen from unnecessary suffering and extinction in the wild.


Long, A. & Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ramelli, I. (2009). Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Leonidas became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

'Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope' by Andrew Overby

Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope

by Andrew Overby

A Stoic take on the now classic Obama 'Hope' Poster. Sourced here.
A Stoic take on the now classic Obama ‘Hope’ poster. Sourced here.

In the world of one’s own thoughts and dreams, the world can sometimes take on new and surprising dimensions: things can be brighter, more interesting, more elegant, even more fun and enjoyable. It’s great to be king. Things move faster and few real-world issues appear in focus enough to darken the pristine imagery of imagination. Dream speeds on as a hare, the world plods along like the slow-going tortoise. To mind the gap in between, human beings need philosophy.

The real world, where time can be measured in centuries or eons, is a place crystalline and perfect imaginings emerge as imperfect wooden forms even under ideal conditions. Hardly surprising is the fact that disillusionment is often the result. This is where the Stoics are uniquely qualified to help.

The Stoics wrote that the world is a place we happen to inhabit for a time, not a place we are destined to lord over or one whose direction we should expect to dramatically influence. It is better, they maintain, to know that while things happen, they do not necessarily happen to us.

Yet Stoics also profess a belief that human beings can and should take an active part in public life, whether as a leading figure, a military general or an administrator of some type, or simply as a concerned citizen upholding his or her own small end of an implicit social contract to better the public good, to paraphrase Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, who oversaw ancient Rome’s vital grain supply but worried about himself and devoting all his energies to public work. Whatever the role, just do the best possible with what you have control over.

A practical example might illuminate how Stoics rectify these ideas that seem to contradict each other. How do we actively live in the world without being ensnared by it?

To echo American general-turned-president Eisenhower, who believed no prewritten battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, how do we keep dreams alive upon contact with the real world?

Consider the now-famous Stockdale Paradox: Vice Admiral James Stockade of the U.S. Navy was held as the highest-ranking POW naval officer in North Vietnam for more than seven years.

Before his deployment, he had studied some Stoic philosophy, which meant he was better prepared for this struggle than many of his fellow POWs. Many consoled themselves with the thought they would be home by Christmas, or by spring, or before next winter, or that the war would surely end soon, or maybe there would be a prisoner exchange. Day by day, their expectations went unmet and their dreams were whittled down to nothing.

In large part, they didn’t survive, their mental health consumed by soul-crushing despair as year after year passed by without relief. This tells us something about what the denial of desperately held dreams can do even to strong and resilient men.

Stockdale had faith in his dream of returning home again but didn’t allow himself to tie his hope to an external circumstance over which he had zero control. Instead, he turned inward and focused on keeping his mind free and resilient even if his body was trapped in a cell.

This is how he kept his head above water and his spirit strong for the better part of a decade. The Stoic teacher Epictetus would be proud.

What Stockdale possessed was not quite optimism, but a profound sense that he would ultimately realize his dream, whether that time was near or far off. Other POWs in Vietnam may have been optimists; Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity.

In 1992, when Stockdale was the vice presidential nominee on a third-party ticket with Ross Perot, his resolute dreaming surely helped him as well—his story of Stoic dreaming probably inspired many of the voters who made this effort the strongest third-party showing America had seen in nearly a hundred years.

Consider also any “overnight success story”making its way around today. Whether it is a newly famous musician or a sports figure just coming into public view, whether it is a famous example like the carmaker Tesla Motors led by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, or even an entire field like the relatively new industry of 3-D printing, “overnight”really means years of work and patience other people are now finding out about. Like Stockdale, individuals like these labored long and hard to unite world with dream.

In fact, Mr. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, the most successful of the companies seeking to democratize access to space and which was the first company to dock with the International Space Station, provides a contemporary example of striving despite setbacks and of resilient hope in the face of opposition—in other words, a Stoical resolve to see a dream through to its fruition.

SpaceX failed in its first three rocket launch attempts, bringing it very close to its demise and giving truth to its naysayers’criticism. Just before it would have folded, the company’s fourth launch in 2008 was a soaring success and SpaceX was back in business, still relying on a “first principles”logical approach derived from probabilistic reasoning that would be right at home among philosophers in ancient Greece, one which says an important task must be done even if the odds of failure are high. Certainly nothing will change if nothing is tried.

SpaceX is currently trying to launch a reusable rocket from a barge at sea (which it has done) and then land the rocket back down on the barge, something that has yet to accomplished by anyone—ever. The company has endured several failures to achieve this goal already.

Instead of concluding that companies have no business competing with governments in rocketry or that it simply cannot yet be feasibly done, the company learns from its failed attempts and immediately sets about preparing for the next one. Its engineers and employees know that each step brings them closer to fulfillment of their mission and they continue to have faith. SpaceX, too, dreams resolutely—like Stockdale, like the Stoics—giving us a live-action view of philosophy in practice.

These examples are not the passing whims or wishes that must be separated from real dreams. They are not idle contemplations, but desperate hopes to increase the crawling tempo of this world. As Seneca wrote, you have time for what is most important in your life, but not including those many temporary things that can cloud your vision. These are not those.

Both Stockdale and SpaceX show us the importance of taking the long view—the longer your time span, the smaller problems feel and reality is easier to accept. In the long run, more desirable outcomes are probabilistic more than they are zero-sum deterministic affairs. Taking the long view can remind us that the cogs of this world most often move slowly.

These examples make clear what Stoics can offer: they give hope and calm in a world often full of trepidation and uncertainty, a sense of peace amid disorder. They represent a path for learning how to handle fear, failure, and rejection. The Stoics teach us how to do everything we can in pursuit of a goal, but to then let go of it.

Whether a prisoner’s release date or a company’s success is near or far, firm convictions and faith in the eventual outcome can carry the day.

The Stoic knows the fickleness of fortune but refuses to let this become an overwhelming barrier. The Stoic sees obstacles rise but refuses to stop trying to realize change, knowing that this is how things change, at whatever speed change may come. It is a cheery and rationally optimistic kind of resignation.

Where world and dream merge is in how a Stoic dreams: he or she dreams not by attaching expiration dates to perishable dreams but by patiently accepting that dreams must be held steadily while the world catches up.

Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.