'How to Become Virtuous' by Tim LeBon

How to become virtuous – Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)

by Tim LeBon

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus AureliusMeditations 6.21

Many people are attracted to Stoicism because it seems to  offer something more profound than the usual self-help palliatives. Stoicism proposes philosophy as a foundation for wise living. One aim of the Stoicism Today project has always been to increase awareness of Stoic ideas and practices. The Stoicism Today team has written booklets, recorded guided meditations, started Facebook groups and given workshops at annual conferences to help spread Stoicism.  At the same time it has aimed not merely to disseminate information about Stoicism but also to test Stoicism out and develop it into a modern Stoicism. To this end the Stoicism Today team has designed and administered  questionnaires, emphasised  some elements of Stoicism more than others  and incorporated a number of ideas from contemporary psychology. Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.21) alludes to one way to achieve personal and philosophical growth, namely to treat criticism as useful feedback. In this article I want to tackle two criticisms of Stoicism. By addressing them I hope to  work towards making Modern Stoicism  even more wise and helpful.

Two comments about Stoicism have  given me particular cause for reflection. One came from participants at the  London Stoic Conference  of  2014.   They pointed out that whilst many speakers had talked the importance of virtue, they hadn’t fully explained what virtue was or how we could become more virtuous.  My Stoicism Today colleague Christopher Gill has since responded to the question  What is Stoic virtue?.[i]  He points out that the cardinal virtues are not plucked out of thin air.

“Taken together they [the virtues]  make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection”

The Stoic cardinal virtues then are key qualities required to flourish as a human being. Here I will look at the second part of the question – how to become more virtuous. To be sure there is already much in Stoicism and the Stoic Week handbook  about  developing virtue. This is not the place to rehearse the  plentiful advice contained in the handbook. On careful examination, though, it could be argued that much of this (for example counsel such as “control the controllables” and “only virtue really matters”) relates more to to Stoic wisdom  than the other specific virtues.  One approach would be to collect all the Stoic maxims we can find about specific virtues – and this would actually be a very useful thing to do – the question is – what else can we do?

How to best build justice, self-control, courage, wisdom and other virtues is essentially an empirical question. One of the key take-home points from contemporary psychology is this:- Whilst  some plausible methods  turn out to work well, other, equally plausible ideas do not.[ii] Thinking about how to develop virtue in our armchairs will only get us so far. A promising idea is to look at  modern evidence-based psychologies to see if they can tell us anything about how to develop virtue.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness

Two obvious candidates are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness.  Perhaps they could help us be more virtuous.  Although the focus of CBT is traditionally on reducing emotional distress rather than building virtue, CBT has a huge evidence base and should not be dismissed too lightly. We can certainly use CBT to help us develop the habit of thinking  more realistically and constructively, which is definitely part of wisdom.  Furthermore CBT practitioners have developed a large toolkit of techniques that can be adapted to build individual virtues. Behavioural experiments, guided discovery, exposure to feared situations, thought records and   formulation – to name but a few CBT tools – could all be adapted to help develop virtue. [iii] For example, to build courage you could challenge unhelpful negative thinking (“great harm will come to me if I tell the truth”) and develop behavioural experiments – for example “plan to do one act of courage today, record your predictions as to negative and most likely outcomes, note what happens and decide what you can learn from the experiment”. To build self-control you could learn to challenge thinking biases that contribute towards a lack of self-control. For example, you could challenge the short-term bias of the thought “What I gain in the short-term is more important than what I lose in the long-term”. CBT could also help you  environments more conducive to virtue. For example “In order to go out for a run every day I will put my running clothes next to my bed so I put them on when I get up.” Donald Robertson’s Stoic self-monitoring record sheet is an excellent example of  how  drawing  on CBT has already helped modern Stoicism teach us how to build the virtue of wisdom –  see also  my Stoic worry tree.

A second candidate is Mindfulness.  Mindfulness has become part of the Zeitgeist, there is proven benefits that it can help [iv], and there is a good argument for incorporating mindfulness  into Stoic Practice.[v]  Learning mindfulness – the capacity to take a step back and respond rather than react –  could certainly be a  useful part of virtue training. However, there is reason to doubt whether learning mindfulness is there is to learning to be virtuous.

One problem is that mindfulness without the rest of virtue mindfulness could actually do harm. As Mathieu Ricard  – a veteran of thousands of hours of mindfulness and a well-known exponent of mindfulness – points out – “a sniper waiting for his victim: … To succeed in his ominous goal, he has to ward off distraction and laxity, the two major obstacles to attention. The practice of mindfulness thus needs to be guided by right view and insight  …and motivated by the right intention”. In other words, mindfulness needs to be guided by virtue and wisdom –otherwise it can be used in the service of morally indifferent of even evil ends – such as becoming a more skilled sniper.

So far we have found two evidence-based psychologies that can help us provide tools to develop virtue – CBT and mindfulness. We can and should incorporate these ideas into our approach – but it would be even better if we could find an evidence-based approach already uses these ideas and is more focussed on building virtue rather than part of virtue. We will return to this quest, after considering the second criticism of Stoicism that has given me much food for thought.

This objection will already be   familiar to many readers. Some critics say that Stoicism  comes across as a cold, unemotional philosophy, perhaps thinking of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Unfortunately, this impression isn’t restricted to those who are ignorant of Stoicism. No less a philosopher than  Martha Nussbaum  has gone on record as saying that   ”Stoicism  is an anti-compassion tradition“. Of course, Nussbaum’s view is highly contentious. Unlike Epicureanism, its ancient rival, Stoicism has always had a strong political dimension. Hierocles’s concentric circles  provides ample  illustration of  Stoicism’s benevolent concern for the whole of mankind.  Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about Stoicism not really being compassionate, but about how Stoicism presents itself. Maybe Stoicism  needs to put its most compassionate foot forwards.

However it isn’t just compassion to others that’s an issue, it’s also compassion to oneself. A couple of years ago, after I gave a workshop which included the Evening Meditation exercise, someone came up to me and said “This is all very  interesting, Tim, but I’ve got a bit of  a history about being hard on myself, and my worry is that this material will make it worse”.  It has to be agreed that the language of Marcus and Epictetus does  not always appear very self-compassionate. To take a few  examples from Marcus’s Meditations

 “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul.” (2:6)

 “Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one” (10:16)

“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life”. (9.37)

It could very reasonably be argued that Marcus knew this was the best way of giving himself a good pep talk, and that he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else would be motivated by the same language. Marcus was, as far as we know, writing his Meditations purely for himself. However unlike Marcus, we are writing for a broader audience, including those who already have a tendency to be too self-critical. So perhaps we need to be mindful of the dangers of using compassionate language which isn’t compassionate.

So far we have looked at two  apparently separate topics. First, how to help people become more virtuous. Second, how Stoicism might benefit from presenting  itself in a more compassionate and self-compassionate manner. It would be very good news indeed if there was an evidence-based therapy that addresses both of these concerns.

Compassion-Focussed Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training

It’s entirely possible that there is such a therapy, and it’s name is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)  and its related set of practices Compassionate Mind Training(CMT).[vi]  CFT  is an integrative, evidence-based,   third-wave CBT therapy developed largely in the UK by psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues.  CFT draws on ideas from CBT and mindfulness as well as neuroscience (e.g. Porges’s polyvagal theory.), developmental psychology (e.g. attachment theory) and philosophy, especially Buddhist ideas relating to compassion.

 A key idea  is that we have three emotional regulation systems. These are

  1. The threat system, associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger, which motivates us to deal with threats
  2. The drive system, associated with dynamic positive emotions such as excitement and achievement which motivates us to move towards pleasure and success and
  3. The soothing  and affiliative system which is associated with calm positive emotions such as contentment and trust, which manages distress and promotes bonding. [vii]

Each state has typical emotions, motivations and neurochemistry. The ultimate aim  of  CFT/CMT is to develop a compassionate self which is strong enough to achieve optimal emotional balance between these three emotional systems.

In order to do this, CFT/CMT  takes people through a number of stages, as follows:-

1)       Clearing up misconceptions about what is meant by compassion. A key point is that there is much more to compassion than just being kind and warm. CFT/CMT follows the Dalia Lama in defining compassion as

“a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”.

To do this, you need much more than just sentimental warmth and kindness. If you ask people for examples of compassionate people, they will give you names like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and  Gandhi. These people may be are warm and kind, but they are also courageous, strong, wise and responsible.  When CFT/CMT tries to build compassion, it also tries to build these other qualities.

It was when reading this that I had one of those “Aha” moments. Virtue in ancient philosophy means justice, courage, wisdom and self-control. Compassion in CFT/CMT is sounding  a lot like like virtue in Stoicism and ancient philosophy. If CFT/CMT provides an evidence-based route to building “compassion”, could this help us with building virtue?

2)      The second stage of CFT/CMT is psychoeducation about the brain, including the new brain and old brain, the amygdala and the three emotional regulations systems. An important message here is that we all have “tricky brains” and many of us have difficult pasts.  The behaviours that cause  you problems are not your fault.  However learning to  deal skilfully with your reactions and tricky brain is your responsibility.   Note that CFT/CMT uses truly compassionate language – combining warmth and non-judgement with the need for courage and responsibility.

3)     The next [viii]  stage of CFT/CMT involves building up and strengthening the compassionate self. These include:-

  • Soothing Compassionate Breathing. Breathing more slowly and deeply than usual for a few minutes to get into the habit of getting the soothing and affiliative system on line
  • Safe Place Guided Meditation.  Imagining a safe, welcoming place to help get the soothing and affiliative system on line.
  • Mindfulness Learning how to choose a response rather than merely react
  • Ideal Compassionate Self Guided Meditation.  Having got the soothing system on line first with soothing breathing, imagining yourself having the qualities of compassion –kindness, confidence, maturity, strength and authority, wisdom and insight– and imagining acting in a compassionate way.
  • Ideal Compassionate Other Guided MeditationImagining compassion flowing to you from another ideally compassionate being, imagining what advice they would give you – to help you  build up the feeling of what it is like to feel compassion.
  • Compassionate Letter WritingUsing expressive writing to understand your problems compassionately and planning how to deal with them more skilfully.
  • Behavioural experiments Testing out more helpful strategies that cultivate compassion and self-compassion.

Can CFT/CMT help Modern Stoicism?

We are now in a position to explore whether CFT/CMT can help.   Modern Stoicism and CFT/CFT have many similarities but there are also important differences.

  • Stoicism is routed in philosophy, so we can expect  from Stoicism more insight into the nature of wisdom as well as the  many ancient practices and readings to develop it to draw on
  • CFT/CMT is routed in modern science, so we can anticipate that it is based on a contemporary understanding of the brain   (“in accordance with nature”) and will include  many evidence-based techniques

Table 1 below gives a more complete comparison of some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and CFT/CMT



Aims to build Stoic Wisdom and Virtue Aims to  build Compassion (which it turns out means building other virtues)
Early morning meditation & Negative visualisation  to help prepare for the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Self meditation to help prepare for difficult situations and build compassion and other positive qualities
Evening meditation & “sage on your shoulder” to help review the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Other meditation to help get a sense of compassion and reflect on how to deal well with difficult situations
Marucs Aurelius’s Meditations – his own personal diary to help him develop Stoic virtue Compassionate Letter Writing – expressive writing to help people develop a compassionate stance to themselves 
Recognises the need to be vigilant so “first  movements” so they don’t turn into full-blown negative emotions  Developing Soothing Compassionate Breathing & Mindfulness, first as exercises, then in difficult situations, to calm down the threat and drive systems and bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line so the compassionate self gets a chance to respond
To some extent, a reputation for being cold and unemotional Whole focus is on being more compassionate and self-compassionate
Based on ancient philosophy Based on  science including neuroscience and psychology

Table 1: Stoicism and CFT/CMT – a comparison

5 Practical Ideas for Modern Stoicism

I believe that there is the potential for a powerful synergy between Stoicism and CFT/CMT. To conclude, here are five  practical ideas which address the two concerns raised and could help Modern Stoicism be wiser and more helpful.

1)      Use the language of compassion and self-compassion

If we start to use more compassionate language, then there is less risk Stoicism will be confused with a non-compassionate or even anti-compassionate practice.  Here are some good sayings to try out

  • “We are all fallible human beings.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “You can’t choose what’s happened to you so far – your genes, your upbringing – but you can choose how you respond to it.”
  • “Work towards being the best possible version of yourself.”

All of these are often used in CFT/CMT  and would l I believe would sit well in Stoic Training.

2)      Learn soothing breathing and mindfulness so you have a better chance to notice the “first movements” and bring the green soothing system on line.  Here are some links to recordings:- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/resources/audio.htm

3)      Use CFT-informed Compassionate Self meditations as rehearsals for the day ahead and for challenges you face in general. These are eyes closed exercise, starting with soothing breathing. Like an actor, you  imagine yourself with all the elements of virtue – wisdom, courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You  imagine yourself behaving in a virtuous way, even when difficulties arises.  This is obviously similar to the morning meditation and negative visualisation – the value added is in incorporating ways to bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line and to rehearse using specific virtues.

4)      Use CFT-informed  ideal compassionate-other  meditations to review how you’ve done in the day in facing life’s challenges. Again, this is an eyes closed exercising starting with soothing breathing. You   Imagine an ideal virtuous other  – someone who fully embodies the virtues – wisdom (including Stoic wisdom), courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself  interacting with this being – and that they are encouraging you, being warm to you, and also helping you become the best version of yourself. [ix]

5)      Blending CMT/CFT/CBT/Mindfulness & Modern Stoicism

The Idea is to blend Stoic ideas about wisdom and other specific virtues using compassionate language and evidence-based methods like soothing breathing, mindfulness and compassionate self meditations.  Over Stoic week 2015  I wrote a script for several of these, on  self-control, the  serenity prayer (Stoic Wisdom) and Stoic compassion . Here I will give the full script and a recording on persistence, an important quality modern psychologists call  “grit”.

Modern Stoic Meditation on the Virtue of Persistence

Epictetus would  say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control.  Lack of persistence stops us from enduring hardships that we need to tolerate, lack of self-control stops us from resisting pleasures or other things we ought to resist.

‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”
Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Persist and Resist

  • At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”
  • For example, if you are running a marathon  and thinking “I  won’t be able to finish” remind yourself

                “This is just a thought, not a fact.”

  • As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback or an  obstacle . Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison.
  • Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
  • Thomas Edison suggested Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.
  • So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.
  • Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation informed by Stoicism and Compassionate Mind Training  to help us build up the virtue of persistence.
  • So think of something you want to achieve – it could be developing Stoicism into daily rituals, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, now close your eyes and prepare for this modern Stoic meditation.
  • First to help your mind be in a calm state, let’s try a few moments slow soothing compassionate breathing.
  • Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it!
  • Next  think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.
  • Finally imagine feeling satisfied for having persisted, despite the temptation to give up, putting into practice the virtue of persistence.

To conclude, in this article I have taken Marcus Aurelius’s advice to learn from criticisms of Stoicism to heart and explored how CFT/CMT can help develop modern Stoicism into a more compassionate practice that can develop specific virtues. We can now see that Marcus’s advice is itself an example of true self-compassion, meaning not sentimental warmth but a wise, responsible, courageous commitment to improving the well-being of oneself and others.

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.
[i] See Gill, G. (2015) What is Stoic Virtue? http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/11/21/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/
[ii] See LeBon, T. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology pp xi-xvi   (Hodder Teach Yourself Series, 2014) for some examples of how some very plausible ideas about personal development don’t actually work so well in practice.
[iii] See  LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 9 for more on the CBT toolbox.
[iv] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 10 for more on mindfulness.
[v] Though as Patrick  Ussher has argued, Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) has a bigger part of Stoic virtue, and is a bit different from mindfulness.
[vi] CFT was originally developed to help people who have particularly high degrees of shame and self-criticism, who often didn’t respond particularly well to standard CBT.  Of particular interest to us though is that is how CFT is now being extended to include broader populations. The training that is aimed at the general population as well as a clinical one is called Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and it is this  part of CFT that is particularly relevant to us here.  For the rest of this article I will refer to this approach as CFT/CMT, because our focus is more on helping the general population than on psychotherapy.
[vii] See http://media.psychology.tools/worksheets/english_us/emotional_regulation_systems_en-us.pdf
[viii] In CFT (as opposed to CMT) there would be aim important  third stage – understanding  your problems in terms of unhelpful – but understandable – strategies developed- often sub-consciously – to deal with threats your “tricky brain” didn’t have a better way to deal with. For example, someone who fears overwhelming emotions such as sadness and loneliness may have developed drinking as a means of avoiding these emotions This understanding of problems in a new way is called a compassion-focussed formulation
[ix] See http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/06/14/how-to-become-more-virtuous-and-less-like-basil-fawlty-tim-lebon/ for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.

45 thoughts on 'How to Become Virtuous' by Tim LeBon

  1. Akash says:

    Tim, are you familiar with the practice of naikan from Shin Buddhism? In naikan a person reflects on three questions: What have I received from others? What did I give to others? How did I cause trouble or difficulties for others? Asking these questions reminds a person of how they are supported by so many others inspires a grateful humility which is very in line with Stoic thinking.

  2. Warren Wright says:

    This is a par excellence article!

  3. Thank you for the article. Two Questions:
    1. What do you think of the research of Mischel and Duckworth being used by Modern Stoics in the development of spiritual exercises for self-control?
    2. How alarmed do you think Modern Stoics seeking to do the above, should be about the non-replication controversy in psychology/behavorial/social sciences?

    • timlebon says:

      Regarding question 1 – clearly I am in favour of Stoics incorporating validated research findings, indeed that’s something I’m working on, especially if they are in the spirit of Stoic ideas. Regarding 2 – not sure, what do you think? I would say that we should treat all research results with some caution – obviously the better the evidence (as with for example the CBT for panic disorder) the more seriously we should take it.

      • It’s interesting as a cautionary tale for me. I haven’t incorporated ‘power poses’ into my daily practice. Likely not too now.
        But I am very excited to see what things that are validated being incorporated into spiritual exercises, hence the excitement with your piece.
        I hope they release video of your presentation from last year’s STOICON and look forward to watching your presentation at this year’s STOICON when it is put up online.
        Thank you for answering my questions.

  4. stoiclearner says:

    Great article! I’m impressed by the pointed out relations between stoicism, attentiveness and modern psychology.

  5. Ali says:

    Thank you Tim for this, and as always the Stoicism Today continues to help the general population by reaching out even further and widening the Stoic net. In my opinion CBT combined with it’s maker, ancient Stoicism, never quite formed an holistic therapy to heal the entire person. There seemed to be something missing. But with the addition of the CFT/CMT dimension it really adds up to form modern Stoicism – truly brilliant.

  6. gorga sciberras says:

    excellent read……

  7. Neo-Pelagius says:

    It took me a couple of decades to understand why my Theology lecturer told us that we should recognise that the parable of the good Samaritan is as much about accepting help as it is about giving it.

  8. sigmax says:

    By far one of the most useful Stoicism posts I’ve read! This is exactly what I’m looking for out of modern Stoicism: deep reflections and solid, practical exercises for building virtues, plus a strong focus on compassion.

  9. Roger Blankman says:

    I have two issues with which I’d like some help . . .
    Stoicism contains a number of paradoxes, and even outright contradictions, that, in my view, are never satisfactorily resolved. Some are acknowledged (and are the subject of discussion and analysis, such as the coexistence of free will and determinism), and some are not. The most crucial paradoxical issue in the latter category concerns what human nature consists in.
    The Stoics insist that right living consists of living “according to nature,” and living according to nature consists of living according to reason, and living according to reason consists of making the right decisions or selections concerning what’s important and valuable, and what’s important and valuable is that which is “up to us” (that which is under our control), basically our thoughts and feelings, as opposed to “externals” (health, wealth, and fame, for example). Focusing on, and control of, our thoughts and feelings is “good” and is living according to reason/nature. As Diogenes of Babylon said, the purpose of the Stoic life is to “act in accordance with good reason in the selection and rejection of the things that are in accordance with nature.”
    So reason (or making right/appropriate decisions) is the capacity of selecting that which is “morally good”—i.e., the virtues—which consists of such things as justice, courage, prudence, temperance, and kindness. (Arguments as to why these traits, as opposed to others, are the virtues constitute a separate issue.) Arguably, all the various virtues may be subsumed, a là Zeno of Citium, under the heading of “wisdom.” In such a view, all the separately named virtues are simply manifestations, or applications, of wisdom (right choice, appropriate acts) under different circumstances (bravery, for example, is wisdom in the face of peril; and justice wisdom in the face of distribution of valuable commodities or in how we treat other people, moderation wisdom in what and how we acquire things).
    The problem, as the Stoics see it, is that everywhere most if not all people mistake the externals for what is important and make decisions about how to live based on this mistake. They focus on such distractions as achieving worldly success, gaining wealth, being liked by others. That is, everywhere one looks one observes people not being virtuous—not living according to reason, not living according to nature. Since the Stoic wise person (or “sage”), the person who always makes the right selection and is therefore virtuous, is exceedingly rare—if one ever existed, that is—all people are basically “fools” or “mad” and leading lives of vice as opposed to virtue.
    So the paradox is this: if everywhere human beings are following a given course, it must be in our “nature” to do so. If we observe a given trait or feature throughout a population of organisms, a trait or feature that without fail manifests itself in that species wherever that species exists, then we are forced to conclude that the trait or feature is inherent in the nature of that species. If so, then behaving in ways that exhibit that trait or feature is “living according to nature.”
    Yet Stoics maintain that living according to nature consists of NOT manifesting this particular behavior, but instead consists of living according to reason, which rejects this “natural” behavior, which is nevertheless ubiquitous in humankind. In other words, Stoics say that what is “natural” is to act AGAINST nature, and acting against nature is acting according to nature.
    How might Stoicism address this paradox?
    I have a second question to which, so far, I’ve been unable to obtain a satisfactory answer, though I’ve corresponded with leading scholars in relevant fields (Stoicism, ancient history, etc.). Perhaps you can help, if you’re willing.
    How does one reconcile the compassionate Stoic philosopher who authored the Meditations with the emperor who conducted bloody warfare against Rome’s Germanic enemies and who allowed “persecution” of Christians?
    What I really want to know is how Marcus himself dealt with this apparent dilemma, but I’ve had no success learning anything helpful from the literature; so I’ve had to settle for how his biographers handle the matter, when they deal with it at all.
    I’ve read all the available biographies of Marcus, but nowhere do I find a description FROM MARCUS of how he directed such violence and caused such suffering while espousing Stoic principles. Given what I take to be his sincerity and honest self-criticism in the MEDITATIONS, in combination with his lifelong interest in a basically benign philosophy and his obvious intelligence, I think it unlikely that Marcus did not measure his actions during war and the treatment of dissident political/religious groups against the principles of Stoicism. That he didn’t even mention the matter in his personal writings, therefore, leads me to suspect not that he didn’t consider the apparent conflict but that he failed to resolve it.
    Can you point me to any references that (a) offer analyses or interpretations of this matter from a third party or (b) provide insight into how Marcus himself dealt with it? I’d be grateful for any assistance or suggestions.
    Thank you.

    • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

      Huge questions!
      Marcus’s public political legal and military duties were foisted on him due to his high social position whereas his private philosophically somewhat escapist thoughts and meditations are just that, they were never intended for public perusal, certainly not in his lifetime, but we can surely say that they more truly represent the inner man. The disconnect between public and private is nothing particularly remarkable.
      As for the contrast between the vice-ridden way most people will live if left to their own uninstructed devices, with all its attendant ills, and the virtuous path of the philosophers, I can see no paradox. We must take into account the fact that the word ‘natural’ is highly ambiguous. The philosophers simply said that if men lived a good and excellent life, as far as such is possible, and they even gave guidance on how this might best be done, things would go better for them.

    • sigmax says:

      I think you’ve made a lovely summary of Stoic ethical theory (though I’m not sure what it has to do with this particular post).
      Re. “paradox” #1, Epictetus actually explicitly acknowledges the disconnect between “natural” impulses and living “according to nature” in Discourses, Book I.11. He points out that a tumor is “natural”—but we do not call it good—and then he asks how we can discriminate between good and bad.
      So I think it would be better to categorize this as an “acknowledged” paradox.
      I’m an amateur, not a scholar, but I think it’s fairly clear (if not from that chapter, then from the Discourses in general) that Epictetus, at least, resolves this problem via his understanding of the divine. For him, living in accord with nature is synonymous with living in accord with the will of God. “Where the nature of God is, there also the nature of the good should be” (Book II.8).
      I see at least two different ways that he describes following God.
      First, Epictetus regularly invokes a Panglossian theodicy, claiming that this is the best of all possible worlds, and suggests that we should endure suffering without complaint because it is all for the greater benefit of creation. Book II.16: “Dare to look up to God and say, `Deal with me for the future as thou wilt; I am of the same mind as thou art; I am thine.”
      Second, the famous conversation with Zeus at the beginning of the Discourses claims that Zeus wanted to endow us with complete, untarnished reason, but that for some reason He could only give us a tiny spark of the full reasoning ability that the gods enjoy.
      To Epictetus then, reason is both the purpose that we were created for BY nature (Zeus), and the defining quality of the gods, who nature intends us to imitate. “If the divine is faithful, man also must be faithful; if it is free, man must also be free; if it is beneficent, man also must be beneficent; if magnanimous, man also must be magnanimous; as being then an imitator of God, he must do and say everything consistently with this fact” (Book II.14).
      And, in my personal favorite one-line summary of Stoicism: “Dying as becomes a god, sickening as becomes a god. This power I possess; this I can do.”
      This is just Epictetus’s solution. I don’t know how other Stoics explained what they meant by “following nature.” As an atheist, I can’t embrace Epictetus’s heavy reliance on design arguments and Panglossian theodicy. But I can recognize the power of idealizing an idea of a perfect agent, worthy of being imitated—living “as becomes a god!”

      • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

        I agree. For Epictetus following Zeus (“Lead thou me on O Zeus and Destiny”) is what it’s all about.
        Atheists can of course interpret the term _Zeus_ simply as _events_ without compromising their atheism, thus,
        “For here are the two principles that you ought to have ready at hand: Outside the sphere of the moral purpose there is nothing either good or bad; and, We ought not to lead events, but to follow them.” [Oldfather, v. 2]

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      Hi Roger,
      One of the problems you are encountering is that so much that is written and said on the subject that appears to be paradoxical comes from Epictians [Epict-ians] who limit many of their views to only what the ‘master’ says.
      For instance what Epictetus was offering at his school was a form of therapeutic education and was aimed at providing a version of the Stoic mind training. What we have of his views relates to only the mind and has less to do with the practical application of the mind training when it comes to actually living the Stoic life.
      Much is made of our responsibility to make correct judgements, judgements over which we have total control. What is omitted is our responsibility to make judgements and decisions and to try to apply such to our lives – even in situations where we may not have total control.
      You say “Yet Stoics maintain that living according to nature consists of NOT manifesting this particular behavior, but instead consists of living according to reason, which rejects this “natural” behaviour.”
      Actually, despite many claims to the contrary, Stoicism as a whole does not reject the natural behaviours – Stoicism trains us to make correct judgements etcetera whereby we try to ensure that the behaviours serve us as they are meant to do.
      One needs to see Marcus in the context of his times. Would any of us have acted differently to him if we had been immersed in the culture that he was brought up in? However there are some aspects of modern society that show that he was trying his best. Just look at Obama wanting to change American gun laws and how he cannot do so because he cannot overrule the Senate and Congress. Marcus was in the same boat. The Roman Senate passed the laws regards the Christians. Marcus could not change matters – but it is reported that he discouraged the various Roman governors from looking for Christians on the basis that if they did not look they would not have to apply the laws of the Senate.
      Marcus is only reported as going after Christians when a particular Christian sect tried to encourage the overthrow of his governance while he was away trying to defend the Roman Empire.
      As it is Marcus is not known as one of the ‘good Emperors’ for nothing. He did at least try.
      If you want to go into greater details on this and other matter I would be happy for the Stoicism Today team to let you have my email address if you want to contact them for it. We could then start a more detailed discussion if you would like to.

      • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

        One of the problems you are encountering is that so much that is written and said on the subject that appears to be paradoxical comes from Epictians [Epict-ians] who limit many of their views to only what the ‘master’ says.”
        Actually, we admirers of the Epictet(e)an philosophy are called ‘Stoics’ ‘Cynics’ ‘Philosophers’ and ‘Christians’ BUT NOT ‘Epictians’ – where on earth did you dig that one up from?
        If you actually took the trouble some time to read and digest Arrian’s Diatribes of Epictetus, (I say that because from the way you speak it appears you haven’t done anything more than turn the pages of Arrian’s Manual,) you too might begin to see him as an eminent teacher / master and a pretty impressive human being.
        Perhaps they didn’t have school masters where you come from, so you are not familiar with the term, I don’t know, but your unbridled attack on Epictetus and his admirers and followers – ancient and modern – verges almost on the defamatory.
        You would do well button your loose tongue and control your passion for prolixity, and, furthermore, open your mind, for you might then learn something from one of the best teachers that ever lived.

        • Nigel Glassborow says:

          Your attempts at trying to make those who follow Epictetus look ridiculous by your apparent claim to be one of them and your over the top ‘feigned objections’ to what I have said are not helpful to the discussion.

      • sigmax says:

        Heh, wow, I’m not sure what just happened there between you and Archibald. *whistles and moves on.*
        “…who limit many of their views to only what the ‘master’ says.”
        I admit that I use Epictetus a little bit like that—but only because he is the closest thing we have to a comprehensive, systematic presentation of Stoicism, so it’s easy to use him as a reference for “proof texts.” I mean, he left us the biggest, arguably most substantive book on Stoicism to survive—of course he’s going to be a major figure in how we define Stoic views.
        “What we have of his views relates to only the mind and has less to do with the practical application of the mind training when it comes to actually living the Stoic life.”
        This surprised me, because I think of Epictetus as being almost completely concerned with the practical side of philosophy. So I’m wondering what you think the difference is between “the mind” and “the practical application of the mind training?”
        You hint that it’s because Epictetus makes so much of the dichotomy of control:
        “What is omitted is our responsibility to make judgements and decisions and to try to apply such to our lives – even in situations where we may not have total control.”
        So, not to prolong this comment thread, but I’m curious, Nigel—are you suggesting that a “practical application” of Stoicism needs to focus more on something like Irvine “trichotomy of control?” The idea of doing our best in situations where we only have partial control does appear in Epictetus, as far as I know it is not emphasized.
        Or are you saying that a practical philosophy needs more specific content to help us learn what correct judgments *are,* in contrast to Epictetus, who spoke an awful lot about correct judgment but preferred to speak on the level of abstract principles rather than specific examples?
        Or something else?

        • Nigel Glassborow says:

          Hi Sigmax,
          First off, I apologise for my error in stating “his views relates to only the mind” when I meant to say “his views relate mostly to the mind”.
          As to what I am saying, I am trying to say that what we have from Epictetus is not of its own “the closest thing we have to a comprehensive, systematic presentation of Stoicism.” It is more a systematic presentation of the Stoic mind training. There is so much more to Stoicism than what many modern scholars present as being Epictetus’ Stoicism.
          So, in trying to answer your questions, let me say that I am not anti Epictetus. Epictetus had an obvious belief in the wider teachings of Stoicism – wider than the syllabus that we have a record of him teaching. He clearly alludes to, if not out rightly talks of many aspects of Stoicism other than just the mind training that was the subject of what he taught.
          Yet many today want to only follow certain aspects of the syllabus as reported by Arrian – that is treating Stoicism as a therapy, a sort of CBT plus. Whereas Epictetus had a definite spiritual view that includes a belief in God and his ideas were clearly based on the Stoic metaphysics – all of which is often omitted in so called modern Stoicism.
          Further, as we have only a limited record of what Epictetus taught as a whole, in order to fill out the full nature of what we know of what Epictetus was teaching, we also need to go back to the teachings he studied – at least as best we can.
          As to Irvine, the answer is *possibly* yes – but don’t hold me to that.
          Even if we only have partial control over various ‘externals’, including our bodies, it is clear that we need to take responsibility for what control we do have. I am sure that if I were inclined to look I would be able to find quotes from Epictetus and other Stoics of old that uphold this. But from memory, whereas many claim that Epictetus saw love as a pathos that was to be avoided at all cost, Epictetus does talk about ensuring that one’s love for one’s spouse and children is appropriate. Such love involves externals and natural forces both of which we do not have total control over, yet Epictetus expects us to give our love the same attention as we would give to those things over which we do have total control.
          Again, I apologise for my words, but I do not deride Epictetus, neither do I see him as a ‘master’. Stoicism is meant to be based on reasoned understandings – not on the words of some single personality. All too often, because of setting Epictetus up on a pedestal, many claim that what Epictetus taught *is* Stoicism and quotes from other Stoics are derided because they offer an apparently different perspective than that which some moderns have tried to interpret as being ‘Epictetus’ philosophy’ as against what is ‘Stoic philosophy’.
          Seneca: Moral Essays XXXIII. On the futility of Learning Maxims:
          ‘We Stoics are not subjects of a despot: each one of us lays claim to his own freedom (of thought).’
          ‘This is what Zeno said. But what of your own opinion? This is the opinion of Cleanths. But what of your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders. Put forth something of your own stock.’
          ‘Let there be a difference between yourself and your book! How long shall you be the learner? From now on be a teacher as well!’
          ‘The truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing, but is not even investigating… Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open to all; it has not yet been monopolised. And there is plenty left of it even for posterity to discover.’

          • sigmax says:

            Thank you for elaborating!
            As someone who only really started learning about Stoicism in the last six months, it is clear to me that I will still have much to learn after I finish reading Epictetus :).

        • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

          For all our sakes please don’t encourage Nigel. I’m sorry to have to say this but the man is an inveterate and hopelessly incorrigible babbler / waffler but, worse, there is very little substance to anything he might say about the Stoics.
          His ‘Stoicism’ is peculiar to him alone and it is so far removed from Stoicism proper as to be barely recognisable as the same thing. One might reasonably regard him as a manifestation of the ‘Antistoic.’
          Of course, Nigel loves nothing better than hearing himself talking about his weird take on the Stoics but, unfortunately for the rest of us, this self-indulgent waffle of his soon becomes very tedious.
          Grant him a column inch and it’s guaranteed he’ll overrun it by several yards. There are no doubt many reasons for his lack of control. My guess is he uses this tactic in the hope of wearing down all opposition to his bizarre brand of Stoic philosophy.
          My advice to you Sigmax is this: pay very little heed to anything Nigel says about the Stoics. Definitely continue reading Epictetus: he is the nearest thing we have to the authentic ancient Stoic article. And read also Marcus Aurelius. Oh, and while you’re at it check out Seneca’s belles-lettres to Lucilius. You might also read Diogenes Laertius book 7.
          These four works will give you the essential grounding you need to pursue further studies if that is your desire (but be warned, Stoicism can become an addiction!) There are other works but these four are the primary texts which will stand you in the best stead.

          • sigmax says:

            “For all our sakes please don’t encourage Nigel.”
            Everything you say could be true. But your anti-Nigel rhetoric gives me almost no information to go on. All I have to go on is the context of this one comment thread.
            It seems that I have stepped into the middle of a long-going argument that cannot be understood without considering a huge amount of previous baggage. It’s as if you are a married couple hashing out a tired, recurring argument, and I am a mere passer-by.
            All I can tell from this thread is that Archibald has an extreme dislike for Nigel, and won’t hesitate to make vicious accusations about his character. Archibald’s censure of him tells me more about Archibald than it does about Nigel.
            All I can tell from this thread is that Nigel has said little to nothing about Archibald’s character, and has merely shared a few opinions about what various Stoics believed. Perhaps those opinions are very controversial. I wouldn’t know.
            As a stranger to both of you, merely passing through, it is impossible for me to discern from my position which one of you it is who has the specious and unteachable opinions.

      • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

        Nigel my friend,
        You said to Roger, “If you want to go into greater details on this and other matter I would be happy for the Stoicism Today team to let you have my email address if you want to contact them for it. We could then start a more detailed discussion if you would like to.”
        The thing is I’d really like to help you out on the subject of Epictetus. Feel free to email me at archie.lochus@gmail.com
        By the way, I enjoyed reading and mostly agreed with what you had to say on the subject of animals, message 37745…

  10. Rob Thompson says:

    Each day we suffer. Sometimes in big ways, most of the time is small. We don’t think of ourselves as suffering, we think this is a normal part of our life. These continual small amounts of suffering affects our happiness. They also affect the happiness of those around us, and how we feel and act.
    I believe the cure is self-compassion.
    Self-compassion eases the pain of the suffering. It reduces the bad effects and allowing us to choose more helpful ways of living. I realise this sounds intangible and vague. If you become mindful towards this suffering you’ll begin to notice it. Then accept it, don’t ignore or avoid it. Accept that it’s a part of life. Then let go of what’s causing the suffering. Release it, or put it to one side. The cause is likely something you wish were different. Instead, appreciate things as they are. Be grateful for the reality that’s happening right now.

  11. Mark says:

    Sigmax, I like your style. And your BS detector seems to be in good working order. 😉

    • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

      You wrote:
      “All I can tell from this thread is that Archibald has an extreme dislike for Nigel, and won’t hesitate to make vicious accusations about his character.”
      I quite like Nigel; he amuses me. And I have not made any “vicious accusations about his character”. I find his shallowness very endearing. Any ideas to the contrary exist in your imagination not in fact. My goodness me, I find it surprising you can be so poe-faced about this. Lighten up, friend.
      “Archibald’s censure of him tells me more about Archibald than it does about Nigel.”
      No your misreading of the situation has led you to grasp the wrong end of the stick.
      “All I can tell from this thread is that Nigel has said little to nothing about Archibald’s character, and has merely shared a few opinions about what various Stoics believed. Perhaps those opinions are very controversial. I wouldn’t know.”
      Well, take sides, why don’t you!
      I give up, yes that easily! If you’re really more interested in hearing Nigel’s strange opinions, than in reading and studying the Stoics themselves, don’t let me stop you.
      That’ll teach you to intervene between husband and wife!

      • sigmax says:

        “I have not made any ‘vicious accusations about his character’. I find his shallowness very endearing.”
        Alright, viciously patronizing remarks, then:
        “If you actually took the trouble some time to read…”
        “Perhaps they didn’t have school masters where you come from…”
        “You would do well button your loose tongue and control your passion for prolixity…”
        “the man is an inveterate and hopelessly incorrigible babbler / waffler”
        “there is very little substance to anything he might say ”
        “Nigel loves nothing better than hearing himself talking”
        “this self-indulgent waffle of his”
        “Grant him a column inch and it’s guaranteed he’ll overrun it by several yards”
        “There are no doubt many reasons for his lack of control.”
        This string of thinly-veiled invectives is useless to me, as a third party. It is poor rhetoric. You might as well slap him in the face—it has the same logical effect.
        More importantly, methinks Epictetus would disapprove of your school of rhetoric:
        “Now, this was the first and chief peculiarity of Socrates, never to be irritated in argument, never to utter anything abusive, anything insulting, but to bear with abusive persons and to put an end to the quarrel.” —Discourses, II.12.
        “Well, take sides, why don’t you!”
        I’d love to hear the other side of the story, but so far you haven’t told me anything about what is actually wrong with Nigel’s remarks—besides that little quibble of “Epictian.” I thought it was cute, but apparently it offended you.

        • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

          You mention Socrates…
          Are you aware of the fact that he used a great deal of irony in his conversation? Are you aware of the fact that he loved to mock, to ridicule, and to tease his interlocutors? Why do you think so many Athenians voted against him at his trial?
          You bang on about my ‘rhetoric’ but I have made no Thrasymachean speeches, I keep things short and to the point. I’m no sophist; I don’t have time for rhetorical flourishes. However, if you enjoy Stoic rhetoric, Stoic layman’s rhetoric that is, not Epictetean, I suggest you join the stoics Yahoo group where you can witness Nigel at his interminable quibbling best.
          As for Epictetus’s view of Socrates, like his view of Diogenes, it is idealistic, idolatrous, and way too rhetorical for me.

          • sigmax says:

            “Are you aware of the fact that he used a great deal of irony in his conversation? Are you aware of the fact that he loved to mock, to ridicule, and to tease his interlocutors?”
            Indeed, he did. Epictetus was using him as a vehicle to express an ideal. The Socrates I know from Plato could indeed be very sassy and patronizing!
            In a kind of nerdy way, I’m delighted at your response to Epicetetus’s use of Socrates—I’m impressed at closely it mirror the way that Christians debate proper dialogue, and try and use the figure of Christ to censure or or justify, respectively, derision as a valid rhetorical tool.
            In Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters, for instance, the Jesuits accuse him of being un-Christ-like in his polemics against them. He response is to argue that derision, mockery, and ridicule are “sanctioned by Scripture, by the example of the best of saints, and even by that of God himself.”
            “You bang on about my ‘rhetoric’ but I have made no Thrasymachean speeches”
            I think you misunderstood my use of the term. I was not suing rhetoric in the derisive sense, as in “empty rhetoric” or “sophistry.” I mean simply the effort at persuasion. My point was that your attempts to deride Nigel do nothing to persuade me that his arguments are incorrect. Instead, they backfire, and severely undermine your ethos.
            Apologies if I have taken the conversation in a non-constructive direction. Rhetorical tone is a very difficult thing to debate.
            You and I clearly have very different precognitions, if you will, about what ideal, virtue-based dialogue ought to look like. Apparently, Stoics are as divided on this question as other communities are (such as Christians, or atheists—lord knows atheists have had enough arguments in recent years over appropriate tone!).

        • Nigel Glassborow says:

          Hi Sigmax,
          You say, “I’d love to hear the other side of the story, but so far you haven’t told me anything about what is actually wrong with Nigel’s remarks—besides that little quibble of “Epictian.” I thought it was cute, but apparently it offended you.”
          I must say I am not quite sure how to take my comment being describes as ‘cute’. 🙂
          But otherwise may I thank you for your refusal to follow Archie’s line without evidence. I am sure that there is a small kernel of truth in what he has to say. After all, if I was not enjoying the debate and getting something out of it I would not participate.
          However, while acknowledging that I would naturally be blind to any failings on my part of which I have no knowledge, having had Archie bring such to my attention so often I am pretty sure that my failings are not nearly as bad as he makes out – other than maybe my verbosity. On this I can only apologise. I had a developmental issue and did not speak till I was 5 and, as others have commented, I have been making up for it ever since.
          In my defence, when it comes to Stoicism, many of the issues being discussed cannot be effectively summed up in maxims and in fact need a far more detailed explanation when trying to outline one’s view.
          I will leave you to judge as to if “there is very little substance to anything he might say”. While Archie offers good advice for the beginner regards what books to read in addition to Epictetus, my impression is that you are not such a novice. I am sure that you are aware of the Stoic metaphysics and the like and how such may add depth and nuances to what Epictetus is reported as saying.
          I of course would be happy to *defend* or expand on anything I have posted here or elsewhere – and even if necessary to withdraw any comments shown to be inaccurate.
          I wish you well in your investigation of Stoicism.

          • Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

            To Sigmax:
            “Epictetus was using him as a vehicle to express an ideal.”
            Or was he simply giving vent to his own emotional, passionately held, idealism? In any event he was expressing a commonly held idealistic view of Socrates, one that has permeated its way even down to modern times.
            For a tantalising alternative glimpse of Socrates I recommend Winspear’s _Who Was Socrates?_:
            “ANYONE who reflects on the picture of Socrates which Aristophanes gives in his magnificent satiric drama, the _Clouds_, and then proceeds to contrast it with the picture given by Plato and Xenophon (a picture and a concept which have subsequently become part of the cultural tradition of the Western world), must be conscious of a contradiction. The Socrates of the _Clouds_ excites the fury and the contempt of the playwright. Socrates is regarded as a thoroughly subversive influence, a typical sophist, a man who strives to undermine all right and justice, who indulges in a kind of eristic verbal quibbling, a technique that enables its master to question any and all absolute authority. In Plato we have the picture of a high-minded, noble and detached intellect, a recluse concerned only with spiritual values, a man devoted to law even to the point of sacrificing his own life. The Platonic Socrates holds it his supreme task to discover and transmit to others a concept of divine and absolute law and authority. As a result of his highminded quest, Socrates, in this tradition, excites the resentment of the vulgar, intolerant, Philistine mob of Athenian democrats. Pursuing inflexibly and unswervingly his high purpose, he walks with open eyes, with calm and unhurried tread to the final bourne of martyrdom. […] As a result of this “interpretation” Socrates has come to occupy a position in the veneration of the ages second only, perhaps, to that of Jesus.”
            Additionally, Epictetus’s own philosophy master, Rufus, was known as “the Roman Socrates.” And Epictetus himself was Arrian’s very own “Socrates”. He, Arrian, that is, was known as “the young Xenophon” because the relationship between himself and Epictetus parallels that of the relationship between Xenophon and Socrates, that is, the _actual_ Socrates.
            Confused? I hope not. There are parallels between the two pairs. It has even been suggested that Socrates began life as a slave. Of course, Epictetus was, before he set up his school in Nicopolis, a slave in Nero’s court / household.
            Arrian, Epictetus’s young pupil was a member of the provincial Roman aristocracy. Their social origins / positions were very different. And there can be little doubt that Arrian had difficulty in following Epictetus’s speech, specifically his pronunciation, which has led to at least one major fundamental doctrinal error.
            You say:
            “In Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters, for instance, the Jesuits accuse him of being un-Christ-like in his polemics against them. He response is to argue that derision, mockery, and ridicule are sanctioned by Scripture, by the example of the best of saints, and even by that of God himself.”
            Yet now we are told we commit a logical fallacy if we _ad hominem_ someone! Schopenhauer regarded attacking the man as part of the whole apparatus of debate. And I agree with him. It seems to me we are becoming more and more politically correct; introducing more and more taboo areas; and, all in all, stifling free speech (parrhesia). It is remarkable that the ancients seem to have had more freedom in this respect than us!
            Then, Sigmax, you tell me:
            “your attempts to deride Nigel do nothing to persuade me that his arguments are incorrect. Instead, they backfire, and severely undermine your ethos.”
            In your eyes, maybe, but what difference does that make to me? I mean, do you really think I give two hoots about what anybody thinks of me who doesn’t actually know me?

          • sigmax says:

            Agreed on all points re. Socrates in Aristophanes, etc.
            Re. “Instead, they backfire, and severely undermine your ethos”:
            “In your eyes, maybe, but what difference does that make to me? I mean, do you really think I give two hoots about what anybody thinks of me who doesn’t actually know me?”
            Well, I certainly hope you don’t care much about what an arbitrary Internet stranger thinks about you as a person. But that misses the point.
            Strictly in the context of this conversation, presumably you wrote comments here because you had some kind of a point to make, either to Nigel or to some other audience. Your tools, then, are logos, ethos and pathos—the same as in any other presentation.
            I am just one audience member—one noisy datapoint, that you are free to dismiss as an outlier if you don’t trust my judgment. All I can say is that Nigel completely swept the floor with you as an interlocutor, from my perspective. Not because I think his logical arguments were somehow perfect, but because he did a much better job of leveraging ethos.
            I agree with you that not *all* ad hominem is illegitimate. Sometimes information about a person is important to forming a correct judgment on an issue.
            Furthermore, it is true that, however strongly I may personally feel that mockery and derision are illegitimate tools—it is absolutely possible to leverage them as effective and powerful rhetorical techniques, from a utilitarian vantage. Pascal, Voltaire, and Christopher Hitchens are cases-in-point. I would never deny that they were extremely effective at getting their points across, whatever qualms I might have about their methods.
            So, if I cannot convince you that mockery is fundamentally inappropriate from a virtue-ethics stance, then I would at least try and point out that there are effective and ineffective ways of using it.

          • sigmax says:

            You’re classy guy. Keep it that way :).

          • sigmax says:

            a* classy guy.

  12. Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

    “All I can say is that Nigel completely swept the floor with you as an interlocutor, from my perspective.”
    Exactly, _from your perspective_.
    “Not because I think his logical arguments were somehow perfect, but because he did a much better job of leveraging ethos.”
    Surely that should be “he did a much better job of leveraging _pity_” shouldn’t it?
    Forgive me but I can’t stop laughing!
    Best wishes,

    • sigmax says:

      I no longer have any uncertainty about which of you it is who is unteachable.

    • sigmax says:

      On a more constructive note—thank you for what was actually a remarkable efficient conversation about tone. We very quickly isolated the basic differences that we have in our opinion about mockery—I think you used my Epictetus quote on Socrates and my Pascal quote very effectively to demarcate your own views on rhetoric; and with your remarks on “political correctness” you began to get at the reasons why you think an aversion to mockery can itself do damage.
      These are very contentious and complex philosophical topics to discuss. For a volley in what some have called the “tone wars,” I think it was quite an effective conversation.

      • Mark says:

        Solid stuff, Sigmax. Myself, I was hoping you might adopt Archie’s admiration for ad hominem “argumentation” and start slinging epithets; there were a couple of good ones on my wish list. But your way was much better.

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