Lest We Forget, to Live: Albert Camus and Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

Today marks sixty years since Albert Camus’s death in a car crash, aged 46.  New information sourced from KGB archives suggests that the Algerian-French author, philosopher, dramatist and activist was assassinated on Soviet orders.  If we know why the Nobel-Prize winning author of The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague and The Rebel died, however, Camus’s own philosophy of life is less widely appreciated. 

Due to the phenomenal success of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, published under the German occupation of Paris (1940-44), Camus was quickly touted an “existentialist” or “prophet of the absurd”.  Yet Camus always rejected both labels.  He would repeat that his formative philosophical and literary influences were the Greek poets and philosophers, hearkening back to his formative years in Algeria studying under Jean Grenier.  Camus would also point to the decisive importance for him of his own experiences growing up poor but surrounded by sunlight; and as a young footballer whose youthful idylls were cut short when he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at 17, and told by his physician that he may have only one week to live.

One needn’t be a Stoic to appreciate what a profound effect this latter experience had on Camus.  The young man himself turned at this moment of crisis to Stoicism, reading Epictetus in the hospital as he convalesced.[i]  Years later, confronting one of the many adversities that defined his life, he would cite Marcus Aurelius as a source of strength in his Notebooks:

‘Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well.’ ‘What prevents a work being completed becomes the work itself.’ ‘What bars our way makes us travel along it.’

It is too much to say that Camus was a Stoic.  Perhaps a neo- or para- Stoic is closer to the mark.[ii]  It is anyway little known that Camus was one of the small number of 20th century philosophers of note to have been directly influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy.  At the same time, many of Camus’ own independently-developed ideas read as uncannily familiar and sympathetic to students of the Porch. 

It is this little-remarked philosophical affinity that I want to explore here.

The Absurd and the Benign Indifference of Nature

Since Camus is so widely known for the idea of the absurd, we begin with this idea.   People suppose Camus’s idea of the absurd to be an expression of chic Parisian despair at the godless meaninglessness of human life.  Hence, they see his philosophy as wholly inconsistent with any ancient or premodern view of the world.

For Camus, though, the idea of the absurd involves the confrontation between our limited understanding and desire for unity and control, with a world which resists total human comprehension, in which innocents suffer, and in which death is an inevitable reality.  The natural world seems not to have been created wholly to serve human goals, Camus contends.  But this does not speak against a recognition of its larger worth and order. 

On the contrary, Camus sees our sense of natural beauty as one of the ways in which people experience the absurd.  Faced with a breathtaking landscape, Camus argues, the “inhuman” dimension of nature reveals itself to our contemplative regard.  It is a matter of what his character Meursault calls nature’s “benign indifference,” facing imminent execution in The Outsider and gazing up at the stars.  When we are moved by natural beauty, Camus writes, “the world evades us because it becomes itself again.”  We now see it shorn of the “illusory meanings” with which our all-too-human preoccupations have clothed it; not as meaningless, but as operating according to its own logics (or Logos), greater and other than our petty concerns.[iii]  

The very word “indifference”, so central to Camus’s thought, sounds very familiar to a Stoic audience.  Stoics know that to hold that external things are “indifferent” in terms of their ability to “make us happy” (or “unhappy”) in no way licenses any kind of solipsistic or misanthropic withdrawal from engagement with the world.  When one understands the larger order of nature, Marcus Aurelius claims, on the contrary, one can see beauty in the smallest things, like the broken crusts of baking bread or the gaping jaws of a wild beast.  As Camus concurs, we are awakened to such beauty precisely when we cease to refer everything back to our own egos, but view them with a certain disinterestedness.  “It is legitimate to glory in the diversity and quantity of experience,” Camus maintained, “only if one is completely disinterested in the object of one’s desires.”

Poverty, Sunshine, and Tuberculosis

As we mentioned above, Camus would always maintain that the bases of his philosophy lay more in his own specific experiences than in his formal education.[iv]  Camus’ father died in the trenches in 1914, when Albert was only one.  He was raised by his largely silent but devoted mother and his grandmother, in the sweltering heat of the poorest quartiers of French Algiers.  Albert was the first of his family to go to high school, let alone university.

In truly Stoic fashion, however, Camus credited his childhood poverty with shaping his conceptions of happiness, life, and philosophy.  Growing up poor, Camus claimed, enabled him to look down upon the riches that others envy and struggle for, as if these were the real bases of a good life.  It made him see, as Epictetus would concur, that such goods are at most preferable to have or attain, and that their very absence can be a source of inner wealth. 

“For me,” Camus echoes the old Stoic paradoxes, “the greatest luxury has coincided with a certain bareness”.  When it is inner strength or virtue that is at issue, “the under-worker at the Post office can be the equivalent of the conqueror”, in his eyes.  “What could a man want that is better than poverty?,” Camus asks his readers, quite seriously: “I do not say misery, any more than I mean the work without hope of the modern proletarian. But I do not see that one could desire more than poverty with an active leisure.”

The other experience which shaped the “royal privilege” (as Camus calls it) of this neo-Stoic disinterestedness towards external things is his lived experience of the imminence of death, because of the tuberculosis that continually dogged him throughout his short life.  In a remarkable fragment from his Notebooks, Camus writes of a memento mori few of us, preferably, will have to entertain:

The sensation of death which from now on is so familiar to me … to have a foreboding of death simply at the sight of a pocket handkerchief filled with blood is to be effortlessly plunged back into time in the most breathtaking manner: it is the terror of becoming [italics added].

Once we understand Camus’ sense that he could quite literallydie at almost any moment, we comprehend the urgency of his repeated stress upon the importance of memento mori throughout his work, most famously in the idea of “absurd freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus.  “There is only one liberty: in coming to terms with death,” Camus reflects in his Notebooks, evoking Seneca’s famous maxim: “the person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” 

But isn’t it a paradox for Camus to think that coming to terms with this inevitability is key to feeling truly free?, someone may ask.  If it is, it is again a very Stoic kind of paradox.  For Camus agrees with the Stoics that the “liberty” here is an inner affair.  It comes from being free from worry about what after all cannot be controlled, our mortality, instead focusing on what we can alter or affect.  As Camus enjoins himself in his Notebooks, always with his tuberculosis in mind: “The degradation involved in all forms of suffering. One must not give into emptiness. Try to conquer and ‘fulfil’ time. Time—don’t waste it.” Or again: “Don’t forget: illness and the decay it brings. There is not a minute to lose—which is perhaps the opposite of ‘we must hurry’.” 

Self-Writing, Forgetfulness, and Paying Attention

Perhaps the most remarkable contrast between Camus’ neo-Stoicism and the academic, theoretical philosophy predominant in his (and our) times, lies in how Camus, like the Stoics, conceived of philosophy as an ongoing exercise in learning how better to live, and to die.  The most remarkable source of testimony we have to Camus’ philosophical practice and self-conception is his extant Notebooks.[v]

The work of philosophy, for Camus as for the Stoics, involves trying constantly to have at hand (procheiron) one’s key ideas, faced with the challenges of existence.  “The primary faculty of man is forgetfulness,” Camus laments.  The force of habit and our immersion in a thousand distractions lulls the eye of our minds to sleep.  The wonder of beauty, the fugacity of time, the unique value and dignity of others—all of these realities are easily “crowded out” by the demands and vexations of everyday life: “… as everything finally becomes a matter of habit, we can be certain that [even] great thoughts and great actions … become insignificant …”  However, as a Camusian note from 1950 remarks, “with a strong memory, you can create a precocious experience.”[vi]  What is at stake in this philosophical cultivation of memory is a kind of ascetism, albeit one pursued in the name of self-fulfilment, not monastic self-denial:

One single, unchanging subject for meditation. Reject everything else. Work continuously, at a definite time, with no falling off, etc. (Moral training and asceticism too). A single moment of weakness and everything collapses, both practice and theory.

Camus calls the ideal mode of mindful awareness such an asceticism can create “lucidity” (lucidité) or “clear-sightedness” (clairvoyance).  And again, the way Camus describes its features sound familiar to modern practitioners of Stoicism. 

Firstly, there is a cultivated attention to the present moment: “a continued presence of self with self . . . not happiness, but awareness”, as Camus says: “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul . . .” Happiness itself, Camus remarks, is “a long patience.”

Secondly, there is a sense of life as a gift, one meriting that gratitude writ so large in book I of Marcus’s Meditations, wherein the philosopher-emperor patiently recalls and thanks each person who benefited him in his formative years.  So too, Camus will come to value above all a simple solidarity with others as amongst life’s greatest goods, given the realities of suffering, death, political polarisation and hatred:  “now I have learned to expect less of [people] than they can give—a silent companionship. And their emotions, their friendship and noble gestures keep their full miraculous value in my eyes: wholly the fruit of grace.” 

It is with such thoughts in view that we see why at the time of Camus’ death, he was working on a cycle of works led by The First Man exploring the different dimensions of love.

Memento Vivere

The 60th anniversary of Camus’ death falls at the beginning of another year, 2020, destined to be marked by division and acrimony.  The solidarity between peoples which Camus dreamed of, a secular “kingdom of man” or cosmopolis, seems every bit as idealistic now as it did when he envisaged it in the 1940s.  Different political actors have, and will continue, to claim Camus as one of their own, from conservatives to liberals and socialists: eloquent tribute to the power of his post-war political thinking and example.  Other voices blame Camus for his failure to secure a civilian truce in the Algerian conflict, and his continuing inability to accept the need for the complete end of French Algeria, with resettlement of the pied noirs in continental France. 

What we have aimed at here is to show how Camus, as well as a political thinker and actor, was also a philosopher in the ancient mould who conceived and tried to live an examined life profoundly close to, and influenced by, the model of the ancient Stoics: one characterised by inner discipline, attention to the present moment, openness to natural beauty, indifference towards externals, awareness of the limitations of human understanding and the inevitability of death, and a profound sense of sympathetic solidarity with others.  This side of our political divisions, as Stoics or just as human beings, different readers can still find wisdom in Camus’s philosophy of life, as well as his thought and example, sixty years after his premature passing. 

So, let me close in Camus’s own words, exhorting himself Stoically in his Notebooks in what became his final years, in words which can equally be read as exhortations to us all: 

Remain close to the reality of beings and things. Return as often as possible to personal happiness … Recover energy—as the central force. Recognise the need for enemies. Love that they exist … Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.   

[i] For a list of Camus’ references to the Stoics, see “Annex” in François Bousquet, Méditerranéen , Camus L ‘Ancien (Paris: Éditions Naaman, 1977), 112–113; on Camus’ reading of Epictetus in hospital, see the same text, page 35.

[ii] In what follows, we will opt for “neo-Stoic”, given the use of this term to describe earlier modern thinkers like Justus Lipsius who adapted Stoic principles whilst trying to reconcile them with other, independently-developed convictions and positions.

[iii] Readers unfamiliar with his work are referred particularly “Nuptials at Tipasa” (in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. P. Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), as he describes visiting Roman ruins in Algeria with a lover and bathing in the Mediterranean.  This piece, and Camus’ lyrical essays more widely, contain some of Camus’ most beautiful prose.  Tellingly, in his 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, it is again Marcus Aurelius who Camus cites to encapsulate the Greek attitude to existence with which he always identifies his own thought:

“Hellenism implies that man can be self-sufficient and that he has within himself the means to explain the universe and destiny … The line of their hills, or the run of a young man on a beach, provided them with the whole secret of the world.  Their gospel said: our Kingdom is of this world.  Think of Marcus Aurelius’s: ‘Everything is fitting for me, O Cosmos, which fits your purpose’.”

[iv] Camus’ lasting inability to “fit in” with the Parisian intellectual elites after 1941 looks back to his origins as a pied noir Algerian-Frenchman from the colonies.  Sartre would raise this background against him in their spectacular public falling out after Camus’ 1951 anti-Stalinist work The Rebel

[v] Commentators have wondered what to do with these fragmentary and aphoristic reflections, because so much of them is given over not to theoretical or literary developments, but to Camus’ own philosophical practice of trying to actualise, in life, his philosophical principles, just as Marcus Aurelius had done in his Meditations

[vi] Camus responds in the imperative, echoing Marcus Aurelius’s many injunctions to himself in his Meditations to “remember!”: “Cultivate one’s memory, immediately.”

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

The Stoic – January 2020

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership). The theme of this month’s issue is Stoic Skills.

Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2019 took place in October. We hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles exploring what we can learn from all the questionnaires many of you filled in for this year’s Stoic Week (Thank you!).  Today we will look at who took part. It’s the type of information journalists often ask, so it’s written in the form of Q & A, with the statistics relegated to tables at the end of the article.

Q:  How many people took part this year?

A:  1744 people completed the questionnaires. At least 4000 people started the questions, but  it does take about 20 minutes to complete and how could we expect people to have the virtues of patience persistence before doing Stoic week.

Q:  That’s quite a lot of people . If you don’t mind me pointing this out, this is half the number taking part last year. Do you think Stoicism is running out of steam?

A: Absolutely not. The number of attendees at Stoicons, and the plethora of Stoic blogs and books suggests quite the reverse. It could be that people being interested in Stoicism now have other ways of finding out about it that they didn’t have in 2012 when the first Stoic Week took place.  It’s also true that many thousands have already taken part in Stoic Week and can access the materials whenever they like, so do not have to register again (though, we do change the materials every year, so I would suggest it is still worthwhile).  The most simple and likely explanation for reduced numbers though is that because the organisers were so busy they didn’t spend quite so much time to promoting Stoic Week this time around. So perhaps that’s a lesson for next year for all of us.

Q:  In previous years more men have taken part than women. This bucks the general pattern for personal development courses where women usually outnumber men. Is this still the case?

A: This year 60%  of participants were men and 39% women. That’s slightly more equal than last year but there is still plenty of  room for improvement  (Table 1 at the end of the article gives the full figures). You can look at this inequality in two ways. You might say that since men are in general relatively less skilful at finding resources to help with personal development, it’s great that so many find Stoicism congenial. Whilst this is true,  I  worry that many woman might  think that Stoicism is a predominantly male philosophy  and so is not for them.

I would  encourage everyone, regardless of gender, to explore Stoicism, and refer sceptics to Massimo Pigluicci’s argument  that “broicism”  is not Stoicism. To quote Massimo, “the goal of Stoicism is not to become manly (vir), but rather to excel as a human being (arête).”

Q: How old is the average Stoic Week participant?

A: Probably about 40 years of age. Participation peaks in the 36-45 age group. Over 7% of participants are over 65 which is more than you would expect if the distribution was  random

Q: Does your data support the often-touted view that you get wiser as you get older?

A:  Actually it does, as long as you see the level of Stoicism as implying wisdom! Participants’ level of Stoicism (as measured by the SABS questionnaire) increases steadily with age, and the over-65s are a bit more Stoic (2%) than the 55-65 age group. See table 2  at the end of the article for the full details.

Q: I expect most participants are from the USA, UK and Canada still?

A: Yes, that’s still the case, comprising 39%, 19% and 9% of participants respectively.  77% of all participants come from those three countries -see table 3.

Q: And are they the most Stoic in that they have the highest SABS scores?

A: No. that honour goes to Ireland, then Poland then Spain. It would be interesting to know why this is the case – the sample sizes are small (15, 10 and 19) so it could be that the people taking part just happened to be hardened Stoics.

Q:  Which are the most Stoic of the countries with a large number of participants?

A: Americans seem to be a bit more Stoic than the French, British and Canadians, but there isn’t too much in it. Table 4 gives the full details.

Q: Are most people who take part in Stoic Week newbies?

A: Yes, 69% of people are taking part the first time.

Q: You said earlier that it is worth people doing Stoic Week more than once. Can you tell me whether people have done Stoic week a number of times become more Stoic (as indicated by higher SABS scores than those who have taken part  less often).

A: Yes indeed, the degree of Stoicism increases the more times people do Stoic Week – see table 5 for the detailed statistics.

Q: I would guess that most people who do Stoic Week don’t know much about Stoicism to start with?

A: Interestingly, it’s fairly even split between those who know a fair bit and those who know very little about Stoicism – see table 6. What will be interesting will be to see how much people know about Stoicism by the end of Stoic Week, which we will discover in a later report.

Q: Are most participants already Stoic?

A: Again, it’s fairly close between those who identify as Stoic (or more Stoic than not) and those who don’t think of themselves as being very Stoic at all -see table 7. Again, it will be fascinating to see how this changes after Stoic Week.

Q: Why did people take part in Stoic week?

A: To learn about how to practice Stoicism in their life – at least that’s my interpretation of this WordCloud :-

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics: Facts and Figures

Gender 2019 Average SABS 5.0 score   2019
% of participants
% of participants
% of participants
% of participants
Male 302 60 62 65 66
Female 298 39 37 34 33
Decline to state 283 .75 1 1 1
Other 312 .6 1 0.5

Table 1: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS Score by Gender  (Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Age Average SABS score 2019 2019 % of participants 2018 % of participants 2017 % of participants 2016 % of participants
Over 65 316 7 7         –
56-65 310 15 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55)
46-55 305 19 20 18 17
36-45 298 23 22 22 21
26-35 296 20 23 27 25
18-25 288 15 13 15 22
Under 18 289 1 1 1 1

Table 2: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS score by Age 

Country No. of Participants %
United States 669 39
United Kingdom 336 19
Canada 157 9
Australia 68 4
Germany 45 3
Netherlands 44 3
Sweden 22 1
France 21 1
New Zealand 20 1
Norway 19 1
Spain 19 1
Brazil 18 1
Ireland 15 1
South Africa 15 1
Russian Federation 13 1
Italy 12 1
India 10 1
Poland 10 1

Table 3: Stoic week 2019 Number of Participants and % of total for all countries with 10 or more participants- 

Country Degree of Stoicism (average SABS score)
Ireland 321
Poland 310
Spain 307
United States 304
France 303
South Africa 302
Netherlands 301
Brazil 300
Australia 298
United Kingdom 297
Canada 297
Sweden 293
Germany 292
Norway 291
Italy 289
New Zealand 285
India 269
Russian Federation 268

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2019 Most Stoic countries (only including countries with 10 or more participants)

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Average SABS score (degree of Stoicism)   2019 % of total participants 2018 % of total participants   2017 % of total participants 2016 % of total participants
4 or more 339 4 2 1 1
3 320 5 3 2 3
2 314 8 6 5 6
1 308 16 17 13 14
0 293 68 73 79 77

Table 5: 2019 Stoic Week – Number of times participants have taken part in previous Stoic Weeks and – SABS scores and percentages of total participants

Knowledge of Stoicism 2019 % 2018 % 2017 % 2016   %
Expert .8 .8 0.5 1
I know quite a bit but not an expert 23 19 19 16
I know a bit 41 42 41 39
Novice 25 28 30 33
None 9.5 10 9 11

Table 6:  2019 Stoic Week  – Self-assessed Knowledge of Stoicism at the beginning of the week

Identification as a Stoic 2019 % 2018 %
I consider myself to be a Stoic   10.5 11
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 41 38
Neutral or I don’t know 34 37
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 9 10
Definitely not a Stoic 6 6

 Table 7:  Stoic Week 2019 :  Participants identification as a Stoic at the beginning of Stoic Week

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

This post is based on the workshop on this subject given at the Athens Stoicon (Oct 5 2019). Chris Gill provides the introduction and the section on the Stoics and Gabriele Galluzzo provides the section on Aristotle. This presentation was followed by a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.


The environmental crisis represents the biggest challenge to humanity today – perhaps ever. There are many practical responses being made as well as strong resistance to these responses. Theorists, including philosophers, are also working out how they can help: environmental ethics is an area of current intense activity. In this workshop, we are thinking about the intellectual and ethical resources in ancient philosophy that may help thoughtful people to respond appropriately to the scale of this challenge, looking to Aristotle, the famous 4th-century philosopher and pupil of Plato, and the Stoics (early third-century BC onwards) – both of whom founded their schools in the city of Athens where this year’s Stoicon was held.

These ancient philosophers did not, of course, experience the environmental crisis that we have produced in modern times; but their ideas may still help us deal with it. We do not have to adopt all their ideas, and some of what they say may be unhelpful for this purpose; but their standpoint may still offer us new insights. Here, we are not looking at these thinkers primarily as a source of emotional resilience (Stoicism is often seen as helping to support resilience in times of crisis) or as sources of ideas about the virtues, though that is an aspect of their theory that is potentially relevant to this topic. It is especially their thinking about nature and the linkage between nature and ethics that we are most concerned with here.

We want to see if there are dimensions of their view of humanity and nature or nature and ethics that we can adopt and use as the basis for modern thinking in a way that can help us respond positively and usefully to the environmental crisis.

Aristotle and the Environment

Traditionally, Aristotle is not often associated with environmental ethics. What seems to militate against the inclusion of Aristotle in the list of environmental thinkers is his insistence on the primacy of human beings over all other creatures (both living and non-living creatures). This view, which is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, is certainly testified to by a famous passage in Aristotle’s Politics:

We may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of human beings, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of human beings.

Politics, 1.8

Although Aristotle certainly held this anthropocentric view, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In general, it seems wrong to claim that anthropocentrism is incompatible with a genuine concern for the environment as a whole or for forms of life other than the human. It is often claimed, for instance, that we have a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. And this responsibility entails that we should preserve our planet in the same condition as we found it, if not in a better condition.

This argument in favour of caring for the environment, which seems to be right, entirely revolves around human beings, their moral obligations and their interest (the interest, for instance, of future generations). Thus, to hold that human beings are in some way or other superior to other creatures by no means entails that we should not care for them or for the environment.

Actually, on closer inspection, we can see that there are several strands in Aristotle’s thought that could be used to support a concern for the environment and forms of life other than the human. The Politics passage might be taken to imply that animals and plants do not have any intrinsic value, but only have instrumental value to the extent that they serve the interests of human beings. But this is certainly not Aristotle’s considered view. Scholars have emphasised that there are clear traces in Aristotle of a biocentric or life-centred approach, in which the central idea is that life (all forms of life, not just human life) has intrinsic value.

This approach mostly emerges in Aristotle’s physical and biological works, which are devoted to a comprehensive study of all forms of life on earth. One area of interest is the way that Aristotle understands the nature and development of living beings. Aristotle has a conception of the nature and development of living beings (and, in some sense, of the universe as a whole), which is called ‘teleology’. This is the idea that, by nature, all creatures have an end or goal to realise, which is the development and full realisation of their own nature.

Thus, all plants, as well as non-human animals and human beings, tend or strive by nature to become fully developed and well-functioning creatures. The activities that lead all creatures to develop into fully functioning beings are good; and the attainment of their nature is their goodness and excellence. As the application of categories such as goodness shows, non-human living beings are valuable, precisely because they tend and strive to achieve their own goodness. In this way, they are not only instrumental to human beings but have intrinsic value. They cannot be, therefore, ethically irrelevant.

This general line of argument can be further strengthened by looking at Aristotle’s approach to life more generally. Aristotle has a holistic approach to life and to the universe in general. When he studies the different forms of life, Aristotle considers them all together and emphasises what the different forms of life have in common (De anima, 2.1-4).

With plants, for instance, we share the capacity to take food, reproduce and interact with the environment. With non-human animals, we share, in addition to the basic capacities we share with plants, the capacity to perceive the world, to have desires and to move around to get the objects of our desires. Obviously, for Aristotle human beings have more capacities than other creatures (such as the capacity to think and speak, which implies many other ethically relevant capacities) and so they occupy the top place in the scale of nature. But the different forms of life have at least as many elements of continuity as they have of discontinuity.

Thus, Aristotle’s universe appears to constitute a system and organisation, in which the different inhabitants are necessarily interconnected and there are no radical breaks between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Metaphysics, 12.10). If this is the case, we can see how, in an Aristotelian universe, what happens in one part, layer or level of the world is relevant to, and affects, to some extent, what happens in the other parts, layers or levels. This holistic or interconnected approach invites us to think seriously about a certain number of environmental issues, such as the preservation of plant and animal species, as well as the preservation of the habitat that makes life possible.

It is not only in Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific approach to life that we may find inspiration to place concern for nature and the environment at the centre of our ethical and political agenda. Several aspects of Aristotle’s ethical thought invite similar conclusions. Here, clearly, the perspective is quite different from the biological works; and anthropocentric considerations play a significant role in this area of Aristotle’s thought. It is clearly our happiness as human beings that is at stake in Aristotle’s ethics and the way we make use of the resources that we have. But Aristotle’s approach to these issues shows how anthropocentrism and environmental responsibility are not necessarily incompatible. A couple of examples may illustrate this general point.

Aristotle is a eudaimonist: he believes, in other words, that happiness or flourishing is the goal of human life. He also believes that happiness or flourishing mainly consists in the possession and exercise of the virtues. Human beings are happy when they perform the activities that fully express their nature, and these are, for Aristotle, virtuous actions, both practical and intellectual. One of the distinguishing marks of Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics is the insistence on virtues that relate strongly to the (modern) idea of sustainability. For instance, Aristotle believes that an amount of money is necessary for a good life, as money removes obstacles to happiness and provides security (Nicomachean Ethics, NE, 1.8, 4.1). But Aristotle strongly insists that it is only some money (and not as much money as possible) that we need to be happy (NE, 3.7-9, 4.1):

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, insofar as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.

Politics, 1.8

Thus, some is enough, and self-restraint in material pursuit is at centre of Aristotle’s ethical thinking. And it is this notion of ‘enoughness’, as it were, that shapes Aristotle’s ethical approach as a whole. Thus, if we consider the problem of exploitation of the planet’s resources, an Aristotelian approach would certain encourage a sustainable use of such resources and strongly discourage consuming more than is actually needed. Some resources are necessary for collective or social happiness, but an increase in resources does not correspond for Aristotle to an increase in collective happiness. It follows that we can be equally happy, and arguably even happier, by using fewer resources than we do now or by using them in a sustainable way.

Aristotle’s ethical thinking offers a second, interesting line of argument to the same conclusion. This is not a point that Aristotle explicitly makes, but it seems to follow quite naturally from his general position. Aristotle argues that the happiness of a human being must be assessed on the basis of his or her life as a whole (NE, 1.7). It is not a short or long period of time that enables someone to be called happy, but their life as a whole. In the same context, Aristotle raises the apparently weird question whether someone’s happiness may be affected by what happens after his or her death (NE, 1.10). Aristotle’s answer to the question is open-ended, but it is still interesting that he raises the question at all.

The kind of situation that Aristotle has in mind is probably this. We have a moral responsibility to educate our children well because this is part of what it means to exercise our virtue. Suppose that we fail and our children misbehave after our death, this may have consequences for our happiness because, of course, if we fail in that crucial task, we cannot be said to have lived a good life.

Now, let’s suppose that, by analogy with Aristotle’s thought, we have a similar obligation to care about future generations, and that preserving the planet in a good condition is part of this care. It follows that, if we fail to preserve the environment in a good condition for future generations, we fail in our moral obligation, and this may have consequences for the extent to which we can be said to have led a good life and thus to have been happy. In this line of argument, preserving the environment is a component of what makes us flourish as human beings and so, ultimately, of our happiness. In all these ways, then, Aristotle’s thought can provide insights that we may be able to adopt and that may help us to adopt a more sustainable way of life and set of attitudes.

Stoicism and the Environment

As with Aristotle, there are some aspects of  Stoic thinking that are not helpful to us in our present situation, including the idea that Gabriele singled out at the start of his talk: the belief that other animals, as well as plants, exist for humans to use for our purposes. This attitude (we usually call it an ‘anthropocentric’ attitude) has come today to form part of the problem that we are trying to address. However, more closely examined, the Stoic viewpoint is not so much ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on human beings as a species) but ‘logo-centric’ or ‘reason-centred. Human beings are regarded by the Stoics as especially valuable in relation to other animals because of the possession of rationality, which is also shared with the universe as a whole. This is a rather complex idea whose implications I will explore in the course of my talk and which, I think, is potentially valuable for us too.

What are the Stoic ideas that are most helpful to us in confronting the environmental crisis? One idea centres on the place of human beings in nature and the ethical implications of this place. Modern moral theories tend to be framed in terms of relationships between human beings, and are then extended (sometimes) to animals or the environment, Stoicism sees human beings as an integral part of the universe as a whole and sometimes defines the best kind of life in terms of the universe or nature as a whole.

Happiness or the best kind of life is defined, typically, as the natural life, or the life according to nature; and this means, in part, that the best kind of life is one which exhibits qualities which are also present in the universe as a whole, namely rationality or order and providential care for ourselves and others. Aristotle also sees the happy life as one that is ‘according to nature’, but he mainly stresses the idea of living according to human nature (Aristotle, NE,1.7), whereas the Stoics go further in linking human happiness with nature as a whole. In this respect, the Stoic standpoint is not, in fact, anthropocentric: for them, the universe as a whole exhibits more fully qualities that we possess to a lesser extent. This viewpoint may help to counteract the modern tendency to see human beings as in some sense separate from nature or as uniquely valuable elements within it.

Secondly, the Stoic standpoint offers a distinctive way of formulating the idea that nature is inherently or intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable to us (humans). Some modern thinkers in environmental ethics also stress the importance of this idea as a corrective to modern anthropocentrism; but the Stoics provide their own way of framing and grounding this idea. The Stoics see nature not as ethically neutral, not as just a material object or a process; they see it as embodying in a strong form good qualities which human beings can also share, though less completely.

These good qualities are two-fold; the first is rationality, which the Stoics interpret in terms of structure, order and wholeness or, overall, consistency. Secondly, according to the Stoics, nature is good because it exercises providential care, not just for human beings and other animals, but also plants, and sea and air, all of which contribute to the totality of the universe (its order or rationality) and are to that extent good.

Nature’s providential care is expressed, for instance, in the fact that all animals are naturally motivated to take care of themselves (to preserve themselves) and to take care of others of their kind (their offspring, most obviously). In human beings, this motive of care for oneself and others goes much further than with other animals because of our distinctive rationality. So this is another way in which Stoic ideas can be useful to us now: in offering new ways in which we can see nature as a whole as inherently valuable (what is sometimes described as a ‘biocentric’ viewpoint) and not valuable only because nature is useful to us humans.

Also, I think the Stoic framework can be helpful in leading us to make the kind of response in action that is called for by the environmental crisis, and to conceive this response in a positive way.  The Stoics think human beings (like other animals) have an in-built instinct to take care of themselves and others of our kind. Because of our distinctive capacity for rationality this takes a complex form, that of developing the virtues, in a way that benefits ourselves as well as those affected by our actions.

The second aspect, developing our care for others, takes two main forms: involvement in family and communal life (including political life); and also coming to see all human beings as part of a single community or family as rational and sociable animals. I think that this Stoic idea can be especially helpful for us as we try to take action that addresses the environmental crisis. We need to view our actions not just as they affect our own family and community or even nation but as they affect humanity as a whole, seen as part of our broader family of humankind or as ‘citizens of the world’ (cosmopolitans). This can help us to adopt an attitude of care for people in other parts of the world who are already experiencing more than some of us the destructive results of climate change.

I see one further possible argument, which is based on Stoic ideas, even if it is not one the Stoics themselves put forward. One could argue that the rationality that makes humans special among animals carries with it the obligation to use this capacity not just for our own benefit or for our families and community or humanity in general but also on behalf of other aspects of nature which lack this capacity, that is, other animals, plants and the natural environment more generally. Put differently, we should use our special capacity to adopt, as far as we are able, the role of providential nature in taking care of these other elements. We should do so, especially, in the light of the damage that we have ourselves already done to the world. This line of thought is not, as I say, one the Stoics adopted but it is based on Stoic themes and represents another way in which their theory can be valuable for us in forming an appropriate ethical and intellectual response to the environmental crisis.

Further readings on Aristotle:

Further readings on Stoicism:

For the Stoic worldview, see Cicero, The Nature of the Gods Book 2.

For all aspects of the topic, see:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, especially sections 54 (theology), 57 (development), 63 (the end and happiness)
  • John Sellars, Stoicism, ch. 5 (Stoic Ethics).

See also:

  • C. Gill, ‘Stoicism and the Environment’
  • K. Whiting, ‘Stoicism and Sustainability’, Stoicism Today
  • S. Shogry, ‘Stoic cosmopolitanism and environmental ethics’, forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter

Amor Fati by Walter Matweychuk

Using Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I teach people that we disturb ourselves when we encounter adversity. REBT heavily borrows from a 2000-year-old philosophy known as Stoicism. Many people misunderstand Stoicism and wrongly believe it means to be emotionless. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that helps people live well in a challenging world and to engage with that world to better it if they can.

Currently, there is a great deal of interest around the globe in Stoicism. Since REBT derives from Stoicism, many of the Stoic teachings can be implemented using REBT. REBT and Stoicism go together, and in many ways, REBT is a modern version of Stoicism. The Stoics taught that one could flourish in life when they lived according to nature. To do this means to live a life where you pursue the four virtues of Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Proper Reasoning (also called Practical Wisdom).

Stoicism also advocated that we live happily with our fate expressed in the phrase Amor Fati, to learn to love one’s fate. “Amor Fati” does not mean one does not acknowledge their dissatisfaction with a set of circumstances. Loving one’s fate also does not necessarily mean to give up in resignation and avoid making those changes that are possible in the situation one finds themselves confronting. I believe that the Stoics, who were practical philosophers, would encourage us to change what we can and to live happily with what we cannot eliminate from our lives and thereby achieve Amor Fati.

REBT actively and explicitly teaches you how to follow this ancient piece of wisdom. In REBT, we assume that we can have some degree of happiness even when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards our difficulties and obstructions. REBT teaches that humans tend to disturb themselves and thereby render themselves unable to “love their fate” when we hold one or more of the following attitudes towards the adverse events of our life:

  1. I absolutely must do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and must never err.
  2. You, my fellow human, absolutely must treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuits as my well-being is what is supreme
  3. Life absolutely must unfold as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. It absolutely must only be as complicated and challenging as I want it to be.

Each of the above attitudes is rigid, illogical, false, and self-defeating. Holding these attitudes will not allow you to have some degree of happiness as you encounter the adversities fate chooses to put in your way.

To help people learn to help themselves and thereby achieve Amor Fati, I teach them to question these attitudes and to revise them. Ellis called this process “disputing” because he wished to emphasize the critical analysis he was teaching and aiming at the self-disturbing attitudes the individual held. This process of critical examination of one’s reactions and underlying attitudes is not unlike what the ancient Stoics prescribed. The Stoics prescribed daily reflection in the morning and the evening, which can be called Stoic meditation. During such meditative and reflective practice periods, both the Stoics and REBT advocate that one becomes aware of the self-defeating nature of their emotional and behavioral reactions.

When we identify an instance of self-disturbance inconsistent with “Amor Fati,” REBT suggests that we search for the rigid “musts” that we hold and which creates our disturbed, self-defeating reactions. The Stoics advocated something similar when they promoted the use of proper reasoning. Once these rigid, self-defeating “musts” are acknowledged, they can be critically analyzed. Next the individual can attempt to rework them and transform them from an idea that is rigid and self-defeating to one that is flexible and self-helping while still possessing the wish or value embedded in the attitude.

The process of disputing your rigid musts involves asking questions like:

  1. Is this attitude helping me get more of what I want in this world and less of what I do not wish to get? How does it help me function in the face of adversity?
  2. Is this attitude true or false? Does this attitude have evidence that reveals it is true? What is that evidence?
  3. Is this attitude internally consistent and logical? Does the conclusion logically follow from any inherent assumptions with it?

When one uses these three questions against the rigid and absolute “musts” placed on one’s self, others, and their world or life conditions, it becomes clear that there are problems with this way of thinking. Absolute “musts” do not help us function in a maximally effective way in the face of adversity. A review of the available evidence will quickly show these attitudes are false, and they tend to be internally inconsistent and not logical.

Let’s take a look at three alternative attitudes that are functional, true, and internally consistent and logical. A period of Stoic meditation or REBT disputing would show that these attitudes are suitable alternatives to the three rigid musts. They are:

  1. I want to do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and to avoid making errors but cannot do this and do not have to do this. As a fallible human, I cannot perfect myself, but I can strive to do better and better. Better is achievable, and perfection is not.
  2. I certainly would like you, my fellow human, to treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuit because my well-being is of great importance to me, but I do acknowledge you do not have to do this. I recognize I am the center of my universe, not the universe. When you treat me poorly, I will note this and assert myself, but I will refuse to demand that you be as I want you to be because you do not have to be so. I will remain responsible for my emotional reaction to your misbehavior and refuse to condemn you, the fallible human who is liable for your misconduct towards me.
  3. I will keep my wish that my life unfolds as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. I also will continue to hope that my life is only as complicated and challenging as I want it to be, but I will always keep in mind that these conditions do not have to exist. Life and reality are as they are, and it is in my best interest to accept them as they are until I can influence them to my liking if I can. When I cannot change the conditions of my life I still can have some degree of happiness despite the deviation from my ideal conditions. In so doing, I will come closer to the Stoic goal of “Amor Fati.”

Both the Stoics and REBT acknowledge that disciplining our thinking takes practice. That is why the Stoics advocated one engage in a period of reflective preparation in the morning and a period of evening mediation to review what one did well and poorly earlier in the day. The famous Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, who was a practicing Stoic, reminded himself each morning that he would encounter all sorts of misbehavior as shown in the passage below taken from his diary:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

An updated version of this morning meditation could be something along these lines:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today do not have to be as I want them to be. They do not have to cooperate with me and treat me nicely. The never have to show me respect even though I will always welcome it. Others today will treat me poorly because they all are fallible humans just like me. They are not evil but may very well be emotionally disturbed.

I will first assume responsibility for my emotional and behavioral reaction to their conduct, and then when it is sufficiently important to me to do so, I will assert myself with them and sometimes even resist them in ways that are fair, humane, and law-abiding. 

People and life cannot disturb me. It is I who has the power and choice to disturb myself over what others do and the adversities I encounter each day. I will choose never to disturb myself regardless of what happens later today. I will strive to unconditionally accept myself when I error, unconditionally accept others when they misbehave, and unconditionally accept life when it is rough and unfair. I am responsible for my emotions, my conduct, and my life. I will always look for changing what I can change, which is my attitude towards both my mistakes and the obstructions others and life put in my way.

I will experience healthy negative feelings that motivate me to act in a socially acceptable way that helps me to put my interests first and the interests of others a close, not a distant second. In having this stance today, I will be better able to enjoy my life to the fullest as it is the only life I will likely ever have to experience. Amor fati.”

Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.

What Is a Stoic’s “Social Nature” by Will Johncock

We Are Naturally Social

I originally encountered Stoic philosophy many years ago when majoring in philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate. That I was studying sociology during this period is not irrelevant to my first experiences with Stoicism. This is because what initially caught my attention about the ancient Stoics was their emphasis on our inherently social or communal constitution. I rather hastily registered this principle as similar to modern sociological arguments about how we are each intrinsically shaped by our social environments.

As my familiarity with Stoicism developed over the ensuing weeks I soon realized how wrong this first impression was! Instead I came to grasp the significant differences between the Stoic sense of our essential social nature, and modern claims about how we are contingently constructed by the norms and structures of the societies into which we are born. In the spirit of this refined appreciation, I anticipate that clarifying in this discussion what our social nature means for the Stoics could assist others.

Stoicism’s emphasis on our social or communal predispositions does not inaugurate ancient concerns about social and political life. Turning to Plato’s Symposium as just one example we see that Socrates and the other interlocutors readily explore themes of civic virtue and values. I indeed would argue that the dialogic method via which Socrates generally explores philosophical questions necessarily has interpersonal and social conditions.

It is not uncommon in fact for Plato to describe, sometimes by analogy, individual states in terms of collective states. Take for instance his definition of happiness in the Republic. Individual happiness for Plato comprises the harmonious application of the soul’s various parts/faculties in a way that mirrors an idealized division of functions between classes or groups in a population. Then of course we have a work such as Aristotle’s Politics which considers how a political community relates to the fulfilment of citizens’ natural and virtuous ends.

This inadequately brief summary simply serves to recognize that pre-Stoic thought is rich with inquiries about collective life. Despite this ancient heritage, the Stoics nevertheless uniquely express something essential about our social or communal natures. As noted, this essential social quality will be distinguishable from modern ideas around how we are contextually socialized by the various communities in which we live.

The first point to make regarding our social nature for the Stoics is their belief that we are inherently designed for communal or collective existence. If we begin at ancient Stoicism’s Roman conclusion we find that Marcus Aurelius states plainly in Meditations that when we do “something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest” we have actioned what each of us “was designed for” (9.42,4). Elsewhere he describes this specifically with the term “nature” in that it is in our “nature to perform social acts” (8.12).

The influence of Epictetus is evident here. In his Discourses Epictetus proclaims that God’s design is of humans who “contribute something to the common interest” (1.19,10-19). The message is that our actions invoke a nature that looks beyond our own welfare or priorities to also consider our fellow humans. Because our nature reflects how we are “made in the interest of another” Marcus further grandly declares that we are “born for community” (5.16).

This theme of the welfares of ourselves and others becomes especially prominent when considering our inclinations toward self-preservation. Cicero in his De Officiis (On Duties) recounts how the Stoic follower, Cato the Younger, describes an individual’s self-preserving tendencies as  “identical” to what serves “the whole body politic” (3.6,26). The Stoic assertion is that such self-awareness is not exclusively an individualized prerogative but actually reflects how everyone is “bound to their fellow citizens” (3.6,28).

This is genuinely counterintuitive and requires more explanation. How can our self-preserving tendencies, our looking out for ourselves, reveal an underlying fellowship? A clue presents in Cato’s description of the “bond of mutual aid” (3.19,63). What we learn is that if it is in our human nature to care for another person’s welfare, likewise it is in their human nature to care for ours. Through this reciprocity a communal preservation of the self manifests.

We need to be careful with this sense of self-preservation though. For the Stoics self-preservation does not strictly refer to typical understandings around sustaining physical health and well-being. To self-preserve for the Stoics instead signifies living in accordance with nature. While that nature concerns our communal orientations as we have reviewed, what we are about to see is that such a nature also requires living rationally. It is through this intersection of community and rationality that the Stoic conception of our essentially social nature will diverge from modern impressions of the varied and contingent productions of our socialized selves and states by the societies in which we respectively live.

What Happens Socially Happens Externally

Our nature involves a communal and social existence for the Stoics. Nevertheless the contingent happenings of social life and our consequent socialization by those happenings also comprise much of what is outside our nature in their view. To appreciate this difference we can begin with Epictetus’ well-known distinction in the Enchiridion between what is, versus is not, in our control.

What is in our control for the Stoics is in our nature. Our attitudes and judgements are “within our control” and accordingly are internal to our nature. Such processes depend only on ourselves and so are internal to us. Conversely external features such as our body, our possessions, and socialized phenomena like our reputation are outside our control. Because our body changes, our possessions can be stolen, and we might be undeservedly spoken badly of by others, we have no control over these things. They are therefore outside our nature (1).

Epictetus even advises in the Discourses that if you “enter into social relations” with people who like to “gossip about shared acquaintances” you are vulnerable to harm. The harm eventuates if you become invested in what is beyond your control about such relations, as they externally distance you from your internal nature (3.16,4). Because we cannot control what happens in the external social arena, Epictetus demands that we should be indifferent to much of it. Marcus perpetuates this advisory, instructing in Meditations to “be deaf to gossip” (1.5). We also see in Seneca’s 7th letter “Avoiding the Crowd” the concern that “contact with a crowd is harmful” because of the external ways the many can “contaminate us” (7.2).

Being indifferent to what occurs socially and externally is within our internal control for the Stoics. Indifference does not entirely negate the presence of externalities in our lives. The earlier-raised topic of our health and well-being for example comes under what the Stoics variously categorize as a “preferred indifferent.” We can be physically healthy and even prefer healthiness over unhealthiness without being dependent on healthiness for our sense of internal self and living in accordance with our nature. By not being dependent on external contingencies our indifference accords with what the Stoics refer to as our “rational nature.” It is possibly surprising for the uninitiated reader of Stoicism to learn that within this rationality of our internal self, the essential nature of our communal and social self for the Stoics also operates. Indeed this rationality is the key to understanding our social/communal nature for the Stoics.

A Rational and Universal Community

The Stoics do not restrict their understanding of community to the usual definitions of people living together in the same geographic location, or being connected by shared interests and lifestyles. The Stoic idea of community instead involves something grander. We can begin to comprehend this Stoic community by considering what Stoicism believes we all primarily have in common; the just-discussed rational nature.

This rational nature for the Stoics is a fragment of God’s rationality. We each embody God’s rationality because it permeates the entire universe. To have a rational nature is our default mode and a fundamental Stoic principle. As Diogenes Laërtius reports in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the earliest Greek Stoics such as Chrysippus observe for example a “right reason which pervades everything” (7.53).

The concept of God’s rationality being omnipresent illustrates the Stoic belief in a pantheistic universe. If a divine rationality infuses the entire world furthermore, your internal rationality is in harmony with that world. These pantheistic conditions are why for Chrysippus our rational nature is a “common nature, and also human nature in particular” (7.53). There are equally traces of this impression in Seneca’s 95th letter “The Role of General Principles” when he states that this “universe you see, containing the human and the divine, is a unity” (95.51).

This notion of a universal harmony that is conditioned by a pantheistic rationality contextualizes the earlier discussion about self-preservation. Cato’s description of an impulse toward self-preservation has involved not only individual ends or outcomes, but also communal and mutual ones. Cicero describes in De Officiis (On Duties) howthis self-preserving tendency for the Stoics is “fully rationalized and in harmony with nature” (3.6,20). What we can thus now appreciate via the advent of a pantheistic universe is how this rationalized self-preserving inclination accords both with one’s own natural ends and a nature that is beyond an individual.

This shared rationality is crucial to the Stoics’ broader sense of community. Stobaeus notes the Stoic view that as our nature involves a common rationality, so such rationality underpins how the “virtuous benefit one another.” This translation comes from Anthony Long and David Sedley’s encyclopedic work The Hellenistic Philosophers. Long and Sedley commentate on this point that the “mutual betterment” between individuals arises via a “community of goods” which “belong” to all who live by the common rationality (377).

A possibly concrete direction of the virtuousness involved in our universally rational and social nature presents in Hierocles’ essay “How Should One Behave toward One’s Relatives?” Hierocles describes our interpersonal relations via concentric rings that encircle us. Our closest relations as Stobaeus’ Anthology informs us are for Hierocles in the inner circles. Conversely the outermost circle represents the “entire race of human beings” (4.84.23).

Hierocles notes that a virtuous and “well-tempered’ individual will not be content with this divided and somewhat anti-communal structure though. The Stoic citizen should instead feel a responsibility to bring people from the outer circles in closer. Hierocles bases this order on what he asserts are our rationally communal instincts, stating in his treatise “On Marriage” that “our entire race is naturally disposed to community” (4.67.21). The rational, just, and good response to the distinction between the circles is to reduce the distances between people.

The resulting conception verges on a theory of the oneness of all humanity. Even more spectacularly in terms of arguments around singularity, Marcus’ Meditations defines the universe as “one living creature” (4.40). If the terminology of a “living creature” seems abstract, it can help to appreciate Marcus’ pantheistic view that God’s rationality “activates” the material world (4.40). The world is alive because God’s rationality activates its otherwise material passivity. Given that this active principle (divine rationality) is shared by all things, it is the condition for a universal commonality and community. Pantheistic reason underpins a universal unification in which the “rational directly implies social” (10.2).

The Stoic impression of community therefore requires that what is internal about our individual rationality is also present in the universe around us. A life lived in accordance with nature is a life lived in accordance with the rationality of this universe, where “the nature of the Whole is what my own nature is” (2.9). Having appreciated this common dispersal of individual nature we can now consider how this “Whole” is portrayed not only as a “community” but also in terms of a “city” living.

Cities and Hierarchies

At first glance this ancient conception of our communal nature appears to pair with current human living arrangements when the Stoics discuss it in the context of a “city.” As with Stoic definitions of community, and of self-preservation, however, there is a “rational” condition to the Stoic understanding of the city community. Appreciating this condition requires inviting the second head of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, to the discussion.

Diogenes informs us in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that Cleanthes’ predecessor, Zeno, as well as his successor, Chrysippus, discuss in their respective works titled Republic what it means to live in a city (7.28-7.33). It is through Stobaeus’ account of Cleanthes’ position (as found in Long and Sedley’s aforementioned translations) though that the early Stoic correlation of the city with rationality becomes interpretable:

…a city is a habitable structure, in which people who take refuge have access to the dispensation of justice 

SVF 1.587

What can we interpret here regarding a Stoic connection between rationality and a city community? Firstly, the city “refuge” that Cleanthes describes is a world in which we can live in accordance with our nature. The city is the entire rational universe, evidenced in how Cleanthes and elsewhere Chrysippus both describe it as “administered” by God’s universal reason and perfect justness. While a city community in Stoicism can refer to a metropolis with a precise geography and “habitable structure,” it also denotes a pantheistic universal arena.

Marcus’ Meditations also recognizes this double sense of the city. The notion of a cosmic community of which we are all a part takes on citied themes when he describes how we are each an “inhabitant of this highest City, of which all other cities are mere households” (3.11,2). This highest city is the rational universe itself, the “dear city of Zeus” (4.23).

Modern theories about how our city environments socialize us in variously contingent ways typically reduce our everyday lives to sociologically discoverable, structurally ordered behavioral patterns. Marcus’ sense of the universally interwoven community in which we all exist also involves ordered and patterned descriptions of our behaviors. For the Stoic though this ordering marks a universe’s essential harmony rather than locally contingent constructions:

All things are meshed together, a sacred bond unites them…ordered together in their places they together make up one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things…one substance, one law, one common reason

Meditations 7.9

Marcus indeed rhetorically questions of anyone who doubts that our co-operatively ordered labors contribute to a universal community, “can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world?” (5.1,1). The universally collegial orderings among “all things” affirm how for Marcus the entire “universe is a kind of community” (4.3,2).

Despite this unity we must recognize that Marcus’ communal ordering hierarchizes certain creatures. While “all things collaborate in all that happens” (4.40), some things are not as rational as other things. Animate beings (primarily humans) for example are “superior to inanimate” aspects of the universe (5.16). These inferior things are in Marcus’ view “made in the interest of the superior” whereas the superior creatures are made “in the interest of each other” (5.16).

While this might seem like an exclusionary rather than a communal structure it in fact describes the ordered nature of a pantheistic, rationalized world. Every aspect of the world has a collegial role in the overall structure, where “its end lies in that to which its course is directed; and where its end is, there also for each is its benefit and its good” (5.16). Marcus here evidently draws on Epictetus’ similar descriptions of a ladder of existence that is based on different degrees of rationality.

In his Discourses Epictetus states accordingly that “creatures whose constitutions are different have different ends and functions accordingly” (1.6,14-20). It is only a human capacity for example to understand and appreciate God’s works in the world. This nevertheless is just one feature of a “Whole” collective design and order that involves the “universal accommodation of things to one another” (1.6,6).

This discussion has been a clarification of our communal nature for the Stoics. Modern perspectives on the inherently socialized status of the self often point to how the social environments into which we are born determine our social constitutions. For ancient Stoic arguments however there is an essential social nature to each of us that does not depend on, nor is even influenced by, the socialized arenas and arrangements that we each call home.

Will Johncock is the author of Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times . His next book Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (out early 2020) compares ancient Stoic philosophy and modern social theory on questions of the relationship between an individual and their collective environment.He has lectured at UNSW Sydney. You can find him on Twitter @willjohncock

How To Be A Stoic When You Don’t Know How by Chuck Chakrapani

This is a summary of a talk I delivered at Stoicon-X in Athens and Toronto. It is based on a 10-week course on Stoicism developed by the Stoic Gym and is available in a book form, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. The actual course expands on these ideas, and is supported by 30 readings along with 10 specific exercises, one for each week, to reinforce the principles outlined below.

Barebones Stoicism

Stoicism, like most philosophical systems, has scores of concepts which could be confusing to a beginner. If we want to understand the basics of Stoicism to apply it to our daily life without having to master too many of the concepts, we can start with answers to  some basic questions.

What is the purpose of Stoicism? Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy. So, Stoicism is a philosophy whose aim is to steer us toward a happy and flourishing life or the good life.

What is the raw material we can use to create the good life? The raw material of the good life is not what most people think it is. It is not money, education, fame, reputation, or any of those but what Stoics call impressions. All our thoughts are impressions: ‘it is too hot’, ‘it is too cold’, ‘he is stupid’, ‘she is beautiful’, etc., are all impressions. Impressions are stimuli as they appear to us.

Someone gives $10 to a charity. You can see it in many ways: ‘He gave $10,’ or ‘He cares about helping,’ or ‘He is so stingy.’ Such impressions are the raw material from which we need to construct the good life. We commonly accept our impressions to be true. However, to be happy, we need to judge the impressions to see if they correct or incorrect. If we consistently make correct judgments about our impressions, it will lead to the good life.

How do we make sure that our judgments are correct? To make sure our judgments are correct, we apply four special skills (known as ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can reinforce these skills through the use of three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

This, in essence, is how I see barebones Stoicism. (This is not the only way to understand Stoicism, but just one of the many possible ways we can frame our understanding.)

The Stoic house: A metaphor

From here on, I will the use the metaphor of a house, with the foundation going in four different directions, with four walls, three widows and a roof sloping in two directions.

The Foundation

What is happiness or the good life? It’s a life without friction, “a life that flows smoothly” (Zeno). This means that we are not at odds with ourselves or with the world. But our life seldom flows smoothly. It’s full of complaints: the wifi is too slow, the coffee is too cold, the room is too hot, I should have done this, she should not have done that, what if the interview doesn’t go well, I wish I had more money, this list of complaints is stupid … it goes on and on. We are not gliding on the highway of life but are stuck on a crowded city street full of potholes and stoplights with tailgaters behind us and erratic drivers ahead of us– and we are already late.

Why do we have all these problems? Why can’t we glide on the highway of life? Simple, the Stoics said. We have all these problems because we don’t live in accordance with nature. What does that mean?

Our problems are created by our inability to live in accordance with nature. Living in accordance with nature means two things: Living in accordance with human nature and living in accordance with the world outside of us. What is our nature? Rationality. What distinguishes us from all other animals is that we can use our reason – something that other animals cannot do. What is the nature of the world outside of us? The nature of the world is the totality of what’s happening, the way things are. Therefore, those who live in accordance with nature are not at odds with themselves or with the world.

Our problems are created by our reactions to what happens to us. We often believe that we are happy or unhappy because of what happens to us. In reality, we process what happens to us and label them good or bad. This is what leads to happiness or unhappiness. Two people may lose their jobs under similar conditions. One may think that it is disastrous and get depressed. The other person may look upon it as an opportunity to review one’s life and career path and perhaps find a better career alternative. Two people may get very similar medical reports highlighting some health issues. One may be dismayed to get such a report and the other might think that it is a good wake-up call to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Our happiness depends on how we react to what happens to us.

What we cannot control should be nothing to us. We spend a considerable part of our mental life trying to fix things that cannot be fixed. Let us look at some common expressions, “You shouldn’t have done that,” “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Of all days, why is it raining on my day off?” They are all expressions of trying to mentally rearrange what cannot be changed. We do it whether it is a minor crisis (“I should have taken the earlier train”) or a major one (“It’s terrible that I got sacked. Why me?”). Most of our problems will disappear if we learn not to fight or worry about what we cannot control. They are nothing to us.

We should act on what is under our control. While we are busy controlling what is not under our control, we fail to control what is under our control. When you lose your job, instead of spending the day trying to mentally justify why you shouldn’t have been fired, you can enjoy your next meal and look for another job. When you are sailing, you can blame the wind that is against you (not under your control) or adjust your sails (under your control). If we are after the good life, we not only need to ignore what is not under our control, but act on what is.

The Walls

The foundations, critical as they are, cannot make a house. The fundamental principles of Stoicism tell us what is under our control and what is not and what leads to unhappiness. But not everything that is under our control is worth doing. To decide whether our judgments are correct or not we need four special skills (also called ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. In our Stoic model, the walls of the house correspond to these virtues.

Special skill Purpose
Wisdom What to do and what not to do
Justice Who things belong to and who deserves them
Moderation What to choose and what not to choose
Courage What to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of

Wisdom answers the question of what to do and what not to do. We confine our actions to what is under our control and do not waste our time and energy on things not under our control. This is the first cardinal virtue of Stoicism and the basis of all other virtues as well. Wisdom tells us that externals such as wealth, health, and reputation are not under our control while internals such as what we choose to think, feel, and act upon are under our control. To act wisely means treating externals with indifference and valuing our thinking, feeling, and actions as the sources of our happiness.

Justice is giving everyone their due. It is the realization that we are not isolated islands in the sea of humanity but a part of a larger whole. We are a part of our family and friends, which are a part of the society we live in, which in turn is a part of the world, and so on. So, our connection starts with people who are closest to us and extends outwards. We cannot hope to be happy if what we do is not good for our society. The special skill of justice urges us to understand that

What is not good for the hive cannot be good for the bee.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

and develop a sense of justice that will eventually contribute to our happiness.

Moderation or self-control is the stabilizing influence. Its purpose is to guide us towards what we should choose and what we should reject. The skill of moderation avers that things carried to an extreme can be harmful. Stoicism is not ascetic, and it does not prohibit our enjoying a good meal or a glass of wine (as long as we don’t treat these things as indispensable for our happiness). However, even things that are not necessarily harmful such as food and drink, if indulged without restraint or can harm us and hinder our realizing eudaemonia.

We are often afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of and not afraid of things we should be afraid of. Courage is the special skill that shows us what is terrible that we should be afraid of and what is not terrible that we shouldn’t be afraid of.

We are afraid of things such as poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death.  We are less concerned about our judgments. The special skill of courage teaches us not to be afraid of things like poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death. They are all external to us. Things like illness and death are natural and therefore not terrible. Things we are commonly frightened about are not really frightening.  What is truly frightening, and we should be afraid of, are our bad judgments. As long as an external thing does not the relate of our judgment, we have nothing to be afraid of anything external.

The Windows

How do we develop these four special skills needed to achieve eudemonia? By practicing three disciplines: the discipline of assent, the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire. These are three windows of our Stoic house.

The discipline of assent: We defined impressions as ‘stimuli as they appear to us’. But impressions can be wrong. Someone who appeared rude to you because she ignored you may just be shy. Someone who you thought was unintelligent because he couldn’t focus on things could be going through a personal crisis. The discipline of action asks of us to review our initial impression to determine whether it is internal or external to us and whether we want to assent (agree with) our impression. A false impression will have no impact on us if we do not assent to it. So, the discipline of assent helps us to develop the skill of wisdom.

The discipline of action: When we understand that we are part of a larger whole, we act to make the whole better. So we act for the betterment of our family, friends, country, and the world. This is the discipline of action and it helps us develop the skill of justice.

The discipline of desire: To develop the skill of moderation we need to rein in our desires and to develop the skill of courage by not giving in to our aversions or fears. The discipline of desire, therefore, helps us hone the skills of moderation and courage.

The Roof

Now we come to the roof of our Stoic house. The roof is sloping in two directions, corresponding to our daily practice and enjoying the festival of life.

Daily practice. Stoic philosophy is not a theoretical discipline created for the intellectual enrichment of scholars, but a practical philosophy created for the life enrichment of its practitioners. Daily practices are ‘spiritual exercises’, as Pierre Hadot pointed out.  All theoretical principles we discussed thus far are of no value unless we put those principles into practice.

How do we put these principles into practice? There are many ways, such as:

  1. Doing Stoic exercises every day.  One way is to explore the Stoic exercises described in books, articles, and blogs and select a few exercises to do on a daily basis. They can include morning and evening meditations, premeditatio malorum (‘negative visualization’), and the like. They will all help.
  2. Reading Stoic materials regularly.  Or we may choose to read the Stoic literature first thing in the morning every day and think about it. This will help us remember Stoic principles when we need to use them.
  3. Using Stoic slogans. We can memorize a number of Stoic slogans and use them as occasions arise.
  4. Using metaphoric or humorous expressions. This usually makes light of the situation. For example, when we feel upset about any aspect of reality, we may want to repeat to ourselves the line from the song, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”:

“Cause I’m never gonna to stop the rain by complaining, because I am free.

When we try to control an external thing and it doesn’t work, we might want to say to ourselves

Well, that handle didn’t work! (This is in reference to Epictetus’ comment that everything has two handles. If one handle doesn’t work, try the other.)

When you catch yourself worrying about what is not under our control.

This none of my business. Who put ME in charge?

In general, it doesn’t matter which method you use – reading daily, practicing Stoic exercises everyday, using slogans, or using humor to deflate the problem – as long as it is practiced consistently.

Enjoying the festival of life. Eudemonia is more than simply not feeling miserable irrespective of what happens around us or to us. It is also about enjoying the ‘festival of life’.

Why not enjoy the festival of life when it is given to you to do so?


Above all, Lucilius, learn to feel the joy!


But where is this festival of life happening? Right here, right now. We don’t need to go to exotic places or exquisite restaurants to feel the joy. The beauty is all around us. Marcus Aurelius ruled the largest empire the world had ever known until then and was the most powerful person in the world. He could have had any pleasure his power and wealth could buy. What did he find charming and attractive?

We should also remember the casual grace and charm of nature. A loaf of bread splits open in the oven; random cracks appear on it. These unintended flaws are right and sharpen our appetite. Figs, when they ripen, also crack open. Olives, when they are about to fall just before they decay, appear more beautiful. So are drooping stalks of wheat, the wrinkling skin of a staring lion, foam from a wild boar’s mouth, and many more such sights. There is nothing beautiful about these sights when we see them in isolation. Yet, due to some other process of nature, they become charming and attractive.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.1

This charming and attractive world, this ‘festival of life,’ is given to us. It is for us to enjoy it.

How To Be A Stoic When We Don’t Know How

The foundation of Stoicism is understanding that we need to live in accordance with nature, that we create our problems by our judgments about the world, and that we can mitigate our problems by ignoring what we cannot control and acting on what we can. To implement the fundamental principles, we need four special skills: wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can develop these four skills through three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

Once we understand the fundamentals and have methods of implementation, we can sustain them through our daily practice and learning to enjoy the festival of life.

This is the house of Stoics. This, in my view, is how to be a Stoic when we don’t know how.

Chuck Chakrapani is the editor of THE STOIC magazine and the author of many books on Stoicism including How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. He is the president of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.

The Post-Traumatic Stoic by Jennifer Hullinger

Having been born to abusive parents, fate was less than kind to me. Mom’s flavor of abuse was of bitterness and blame toward me for being stuck in a bad relationship. She expressed her disdain both passively through neglect, and actively through screaming matches. Dad expressed his resentment much more physically. The pungency of his words had a lengthy shelf-life, and he often dealt in bruises, gashes or broken bone. Most of their energy was spent lashing out toward each other than raising a daughter, which was both a blessing and a curse. They can’t abuse what they aren’t paying attention to, but still a lonesome existence. Some of my earliest memories were of Mom and Dad fighting. Trying to find sleep during shouting is a difficult task, one I rarely managed. Our extended family either couldn’t help the situation, or simply refused to even acknowledge it was happening.

In my youth, an ability to distinguish between good reasoning and the irrational had yet to develop. There was little strength within me to grasp anything that would help break my chains.There seemed no way of escaping this terrifying situation. All a child can do is endure, and perhaps seek an explanation, if not a way of coping with such a broken spirit. As I grew older I became quite influenced by my father’s religious discourse, reading the Bible often. Most of the time this was a form of punishment for behavior he deemed sinful, but honestly it was a brilliant way to pass the time. I secretly enjoyed this penalty. There are profound lessons in the Bible, some I still not only utilize, but appreciate: 

“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Proverbs 9:7-9

This passage made me realize that correction was not about bruising my ego, but an opportunity to achieve a growth in virtue. I still consider this passage when someone sheds a light upon an error in my thinking. Of course, it’s one of many portions of the text that I find useful and wise. However, there seemed to be something missing. What of the values I cultivated through my life’s experience? Despite the plethora of wisdom offered in Proverbs, I could not bring myself to agree with statements like:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.

Punish them with the rod and save them from death.

Beat them with the rod, and you will save them from Sheol.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 

Being hit as a kid was a traumatic, and very damaging to my emotional and physical wellbeing. I cannot in good conscience advocate rod usage of any sort as a productive discipline tactic. Upon reading this, I felt my thirst for wisdom had to be quenched from multiple founts of knowledge as opposed to one. Guidance suited for my personal experience needed to be further studied, and from as many sources as possible. Perhaps I could even find one that agrees with my principles regarding corporal punishment. However, while still living with Dad, my philosophical education was limited to Biblical or Bible-adjacent sources until I reached around thirteen years of age. 

In the forefront of this development, Mom frequented hospitals with various injuries courtesy of Dad’s rage. Typically the injuries were a broken rib or two, but if she “made him” really angry, he would inflict worse. Apparently the rod is not merely a utility for the discipline of children, but wives as well. Between these visits, Mom and I would run to the safety of her parents for a brief period of time, usually a weekend. After hearing his pleas for forgiveness, and inevitably our return, she would typically succumb. This pattern repeated until one fateful day, we left him and never returned.

Finally, after divorcing Dad, Mom decided to continue her college education. I was enrolled in public school again, which was pretty exciting for us both. We were able to bond over studies, pour over literature, and critique each other’s poetry. Mom and I deeply connected on this level, and whenever either of us found thought provoking text, we would read and discuss the material. The door opened wide; I couldn’t wait to walk right through to finding the key to personal freedom and contentment I so desperately needed. I had not anticipated just how many wonderful thinkers there have been throughout history. This was especially fun when she was taking History of Philosophy, or the semester I attended Applied Ethics. 

However, years of bondage and living in terror got the best of Mom, and she became more of a friend than a moral authority who provided a safe and loving environment for a child. She spent a lot of her time at various bars, sometimes having me tag along with the insinuation that it was a girl’s night out, but in truth I was her babysitter. She would get drunk, go through boyfriends like water, and leave me to fend for myself, sometimes for as long as a month. If I hadn’t made friends at school, I probably would have not had enough food to eat during the times mom would disappear.

Dad was no longer in the picture at all, and we were essentially isolated from the rest of the family still. As Mom took out years of frustration and trauma on me, emotional abuse didn’t cease, only the flavor changed from bitter to downright melancholy. She even revealed that I was the result of guilt she felt over an abortion long before her pregnancy with me. Basically letting me know, for sure, that neither one of my parents wanted me. The logical conclusion I came to at that time was: my mom suffered abuse because of me, a perception that rooted me in deep despair for years to come. Anger consumed my heart and haunted my soul. The particular wisdom I required would not arrive on my horizon until right after my marriage inevitably failed because I had not yet reigned in my feelings of rage and emptiness. Upon going back home to Mom, head hung in shame, with wrath still gripping my heart, I stumbled upon a passage in this book Mom had on her shelf called The Enchiridion, by Epictetus:

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

When I read this passage, it wasn’t some moment of clarity, but only furthered my rage. How dare he suggest that no one had harmed me! Whether out of my control or not, it still hurt. Who was this man to dare to deny me my suffering!? In a huff, I decided right then I was done with Stoics, and they had nothing to offer me in terms of real wisdom.

As time passed, and events progressed in my life, including university, a couple of kids, and the death of my mother, I stumbled across Stoic thought once more, rather by accident. By this time, I had already sought therapy to help me cope after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder around thirty years old. The clinician recommended a psychological treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This method, developed by Aaron Beck and inspired by Epictetus, works through emotions by questioning the thoughts behind them.

CBT challenges belief systems that are based on cognitive pitfalls such as catastrophizing, or generalizing. The goal is to realize how closely tied these set beliefs are to our perception of the world. Suddenly you see how important it is to pay attention to how you come to conclusions, and how the can often be in error. Why feel upset about a belief justified on a generalization, or any irrational, faulty opinion? Was fascinating to me how such a successful coping strategy was molded from Stoic reasoning. 

Enticed by how helpful CBT had been for me, I rethought my assessment of Epictetus, and upon discovering he had been a slave, embarrassment overwhelmed me. In my rage, I failed to see the ingenuity of the claim that provoked so much fury, and the reason for my reaction. Of course, the irony of getting offended by someone telling me that it was my view of things that offended me was not missed in retrospect. Still grants me a good chuckle looking back. Was only my view of this passage that bothered me. It just goes to show that sometimes the most important message of wisdom one can receive for their life struggles takes not only being offered, but also being prepared to accept. Often the most necessary step to take to avoid faulty reasoning is the most challenging, first you gotta be ready to admit you made an error. 

For years, the dominant motivation I utilized was fury, but I had grown so weary of this destructive dynamic. It was exhausting, and not at all making circumstance any easier. What kind of example did this offer my kids? I had to change; something had to give, if not for me, but for them. If there’s any type of therapy that offers tangible results to souls suffering from traumatic experience, it begs for attention. I can say, without hesitation, that CBT was a very successful tool for my healing process. However, it is best to talk to your clinician to see if this method would be appropriate for your own mental health care.  

After exposure to more Stoic application, my interest in the topic piqued. I began exploring other Stoic sources. A friend of mine referenced Seneca’s On Anger.  After reflection on this text, finally weary of my wrath, it seemed the next necessary step was to heed Seneca’s advice on avoiding rage. Having seen how untethered anger can manifest in adults, and the damage it can cause to others, the notions expressed in this essay felt so serendipitous.There was no way this rotten vice was going to be passed on to my children, and honestly I think perhaps my parents had fallen prey to their passion rather than merely inflicted pain upon me. 

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it.

On Anger, Section 8

This definitely highlights what I had found true of anger: it takes over the better parts of the person, the loving, caring, more reasonable ones. If I was going to conquer this passion, I had to rein it in before it began. But what of the powerful feeling I got from choosing anger as a motivator?

Finally, I ask, is anger stronger or weaker than reason? If stronger, how can reason impose any check upon it, since it is only the less powerful that obey: if weaker, then reason is competent to effect its ends without anger, and does not need the help of a less powerful quality.

On Anger, Section 8

After On Anger I couldn’t get enough of the Stoics. Knowing I had the power to stop my anger before it took over was a life-changing realization. In traffic, waiting rooms, when my toddler would throw a fit – any chance I got to practice stifling the rise of anger I took it. Instead of anger being a source of my weakness, I decided to allow it to be a source of celebration. This built up my sense of confidence, which obviously never can change the past, but did give me better tools to deal with the challenges my past offered. The dichotomy of control was a principle that opened my horizons:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, chapter 1

Seems like such a simple and obvious solution, but one I had completely missed through my struggle: focus on what you can control, and don’t worry so much about what you cannot. This is a practice that is constant in life, and while it’s not easy, this does place things in perspective. This notion of tranquility through acknowledging limits of my control, and sustaining focus upon thought quality pulled me out of the nagging despair I felt the majority of my life.

 Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things… An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 5

My entire life, I had given in to the notion that just because my parents treated me badly, I was worthless and unworthy of love. No wonder I felt so disturbed, angry, and unhappy! Instead of responding to a life I was actually granted, this projection dominated my view. After years of struggling with rage and powerlessness, arose an unfamiliar feeling of contentment in this realization.

Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived… Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 42

“It seemed so…” to me. Am I actually able to achieve happiness despite what fate had so coldly given me? I think so, and since beginning to put Stoic philosophy into practice, there have been some significant changes in my life. I no longer fly off the handle when circumstances don’t go the way I wanted them to, and give less significance to actions that are not my own. My concerns about gossip, hardships, illness and death are lessened significantly. These days, my focus tends to be on how I may think and act better. At times, I even find peace in moments, especially when striving toward values learned from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. One of the most important life lessons gained from my study of Stoic philosophy was to accept life as is.

To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Although I am no Sage by any measure, after years of clinging to a negative and defeatist view of life, Stoicism has helped me let go of one toxic element of life at a time. When successful in the practices learned from Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have reason to be proud of myself. Failure serves as a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of our own thoughts and actions. I still have a long road ahead of me to achieve anything resembling tranquility or Stoic right reason, but hopefully fate shall grant me the joy of breaking a very damaging, violent cycle.

Jennifer Hullinger is a mother of two, avid reader, and lover of wisdom. She runs a Youtube channel, Missus Snarky, where she and her friends share their political and philosophical views. Jennifer attended Sam Houston State University in Texas where she studied Psychology and Sociology, and has a real passion for knowledge. 

Stoics and Epicureans on Facing Pain and Death Positively by Katharine O’Reilly and Chris Gill


This post is based on a joint workshop we offered at the Stoicon-X in London on October 13 2019, on ideas about facing pain and death offered by the ancient Stoics and their main contemporary rivals, the Epicureans. The core idea shared by both these theories is that, if you achieve wisdom, you will be well-placed to deal with things generally regarded as among the worst dimensions of human life – enduring extreme physical pain and facing the prospect of your own death. Katharine focused on a letter supposedly written by Epicurus shortly before his death and at a time of intense physical pain. Chris discussed the Stoic version of a  well-known ancient philosophical ideal, that of the wise person happy on the rack of torture. We give here the text of these talks, which were followed by a vigorous debate on these ideas and their value as a basis for life-guidance under modern conditions. 

Epicurus on Facing the Pain of Death Positively

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Epicurean view on facing pain and death positively via a puzzle about the day of Epicurus’ own death.

First, to understand why there is a puzzle, you need to know a few things about Epicurean philosophy, founded by Epicurus. The first is that they are hedonists, which means that they took pleasure to be the ultimate good and pain the ultimate evil. Pain, whether physical pain or mental anguish, is certainly to be avoided. But it’s not to be ignored – they call pleasure and pain a ‘criterion’ – these feelings give us important information about ourselves and our bodies, so they’re taken very seriously. The second thing to know about the Epicureans is that they didn’t consider death to be an evil. They conceived of death as the end of sensation, and where you don’t feel, you can’t feel pain. You can’t feel pleasure either, but they’re not bothered about that, because you aren’t there to be aware of any deprivation.

With that as background, let me introduce you to this puzzle. It comes from this fascinating letter we have which was apparently written, from Epicurus to his friend Menoeceus, while Epicurus was on his deathbed. He died aged 71 from kidney stones, which, even with the resources of modern medicine, is a very painful affliction, and with only ancient pain relief this would be a slow and excruciating way to die. Here is what he says:

Here is the letter to Idomeneus which he [Epicurus] wrote on his deathbed: ‘I wrote this to you on that blessed day of my life which was also the last. Strangury and dysentery had set in, with all the extreme intensity of which they are capable. But the joy in my soul at the memory of our past discussions was enough to counterbalance all this.’’

Excerpt from Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 10.22 [Usener 138], trans. Long & Sedley, 1987.

The reason this testimony is so puzzling is that it seems to put a contradiction in Epicurus’ mouth: he at once says that he is in extremely intense pain, and yet, at the same time, feels a joy of the soul, which, on his view, amounts to a pleasure. Since part of the Epicurean conception of pleasure is an absence of pain, the claim that he is living painlessly and therefore joyfully and yet, at the same time, experiencing the greatest physical pain of his life is extraordinary.

Now you might think that what Epicurus means to convey in the letter is that even though he’s in physical pain, he’s not suffering mentally, which is why he refers to a joy ‘in his soul’. This might be something like Haruki Murakami’s running mantra: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2009). But even a story about Epicurus being free of mental pain while in physical pain would not straightforwardly solve the puzzle, since our best evidence suggests that the painlessness which constitutes Epicurean pleasure requires freedom from both types of pain. It’s also not the case that well-trained Epicureans are immune to pain. The Epicurean sage is still subject to pain, as Diogenes Laertius’ report tells us:

… the wise man… will be more affected by feelings – for they would not hinder his progress towards wisdom… even if the wise man is tortured on the rack, he is happy… when he is tortured on the rack he will moan and groan… the wise man will feel pain…

Diogenes Laertius, ‘Report of Epicurus’ Ethical Views’ 10.117-119, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

In the deathbed letter, Epicurus credits this joyful state to the memory of past discussions with his friend and fellow Epicurean. He says that these memories ‘counterbalance’ the physical pain. But there’s a big question about what this means, how it would work, and whether it would work.

There are two main ways scholars suggest it could work: the first is a kind of distraction model. This is where Epicurus is conceived of as using memories to distract himself from the pain, in the way we might when we’re in the dentist’s chair and start going through our ‘to do’ list, or thinking about our holiday, or doing any mental work we can to take our minds off the physical pain. There’s some evidence that Epicurus wasn’t immune to the idea of finding an analgesic solution which would help him ignore his pain. Another report from Diogenes Laertius tells us that he warded off pain, at the very end of his life, with a warm bath and a stiff drink:

He died of kidney stones, as Hermarchus too says in his letters, after an illness of fourteen days. At that point, as Hermippus also says, he got into a bronze bathtub filled with warm water, asked for unmixed wine, and tossed it back. He then bade his friends to remember his teachings and died thus.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.15-16, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

There’s an alternative reading of what happens on Epicurus’ deathbed that I want to suggest to you. This is that rather than distracting himself with these memories, Epicurus could instead be thought of as deeply engaging with memories of past pleasures which he has gratefully and consistently recollected throughout his life. As an Epicurean sage, there is evidence that Epicurus would have engaged in a therapeutic practice which involved training his memory to vividly recollect and almost re-live past pleasures.

Some fragments tell us that the sage is distinguished most by this ability, and that remembering pleasures is crucial to living a pleasant life (Plutarch, Non Posse 1089c; 1099d [Usener 436]). The idea of this deep engagement is that rather than merely distracting oneself from pain, one is engaging with past pleasure in such an intense way that it’s tantamount to re-living it. Indeed, since Epicurus cites the recollection of conversations with a fellow Epicurean philosopher, we might imagine that the content of their conversation would also have a calming effect. This might have included arguments against the fear of pain and death, such that there is some philosophical and therapeutic content to re-engage with. On this model, we are still aware of the present pain, but the re-living of past pleasure somehow tips the scales and counterbalances it such that, overall, it is joy that is experienced. 

While distraction versus deep engagement may seem a subtle difference, I think it’s an important one in terms of explaining how memories could counterbalance such extreme pain. On the face of it, if I’m in excruciating pain, the mere memory of a pleasurable time won’t do me much good. It might even heighten my experience of pain by comparison, as when I experience hunger pains, and recall a wonderful meal from the day before. So we need to be clear about exactly what Epicurus describes in his letter, and how the Epicurean practice differs from what us non-sages might do while in pain, in order to gauge whether it is a story we should take seriously. I therefore opened the Q&A period in our workshop by asking the audience the following questions, which I invite you to consider, too:

  • What might it mean to be in extreme pain, yet for that pain to be ‘offset’ by a joy of the soul from remembered pleasures?
  • Is it plausible that the memory of past pleasures, if engaged with in a certain way, could be effective against present pain? 
  • Is the stance shown by Epicurus one that we can imagine adopting ourselves in such a situation?

The Stoic wise person happy on the rack of torture

The idea that the wise person (the ideal person), is happy even on the rack of torture is not a uniquely Stoic one (there are Platonic and Epicurean versions) but it is a well-known theme in Stoicism and one that can help to open up their thinking on facing pain and death. What is the idea based on? On the face of it, being happy while being tortured is just weird. I’ll look at three relevant features of Stoic thought: about happiness, ethical and emotional development, and social commitment. 

First happiness. The term  ‘happiness’ tends to be used in modern English to describe short-term moods (‘I’m feeling happy today’, symbolised by the smiley face). In fact, there is an emotional dimension in the Stoic idea of happiness, as I’ll explain shortly. But being happy (eudaimon in Greek) is, primarily, in Stoicism, to live the best possible human life, to live the life ‘according to nature’, as they often put it. What is that life? It’s sometimes defined by Stoics as fulfilling the best possible qualities of being human, that is, being rational and sociable (the distinctive features of the human animal).

Happiness is also based on achieving a completely unified and coherent character and understanding, and being able to take care of yourself and others of your kind (that is, other human beings) in the best possible way. Happiness also depends on developing the virtues, typically seen as the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice, regarded as an interdependent set of virtues. The happy person is the one who has developed these qualities and made them fundamental to her character and understanding. So why is this kind of person happy even on the rack of torture? She is happy in this situation because she is happy in any situation, including extremely painful or life-threatening ones.

These are qualities – having the virtues, being unified, caring for oneself and others – that go to the core of someone’s identity or character, and they are not lost because the person experiences extreme pain and pressure or compulsion. They are also qualities (notably the virtue of courage) which enable someone to resist the effects of extreme pain and pressure. So it’s natural that the wise person (the ideal human being) retains these qualities even under torture.

So far, it may seem, from a modern standpoint, that the Stoics produce the desired result (showing the wise person is happy on the rack) by redefining what ‘happiness’ means, namely as being virtuous, psychologically unified and so on. So modern people may feel that the ‘mood’ or ‘emotion’ aspect of happiness has just been left out. Actually, that’s not the case. But the force of the Stoic view depends on the belief that ethical development, that is, becoming virtuous, changes the quality of your emotional life and responses. Specifically, it means that you stop experiencing what the Stoics regard as bad or misguided emotions (sometimes called passions) and start to experience what they call ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai).

There are two main differences between these two kinds of emotions. The passions are based on what the Stoic see as false beliefs about what is good and bad, and about happiness and its basis. One such false belief is that what is really good in life is sensual pleasure, or wealth or celebrity, as opposed to happiness based on virtue. Secondly, bad emotions are typically intense, sometimes also internally conflicted or painful, and overwhelming in their effect; good emotions are calm, in line with the person’s judgements and reasoning, and do not generate internal conflict or overwhelm the person involved. Typical bad emotions are fear, anger, and hatred: typical good ones are joy, wish, and caution.

So the happy person (the ideal Stoic wise person) has a positive and a congenial emotional state (she feels happy in a modern sense) and does so under any circumstances, however extreme. The difference comes out in the likely reactions to torture of the two types of people – the wise and the defective or foolish person. The defective person is likely to experience intense and conflicted emotions in this situation, such as fear, anger, hatred, regret at having put herself in this situation, as well as being acutely aware of the physical pain. The wise person will also feel the pain (the Stoic wise person is not immune to physical pain).

But she will put the pain in perspective: pain is not the worst thing in the world, compared with becoming a corrupt and morally defective person. She will also bear in mind her reasons for being in this situation at all (I’ll come to this point shortly) and the importance of these reasons. So, altogether, she will experience a calm, coherent and positive emotional state – she will be at one with herself even in this situation, even though feeling this kind of pain is not something any normal human being would want to experience. In this respect, the wise person is also ‘happy’ on the rack in a modern sense.

There is a third dimension of this idea, in the Stoic version. It is worth asking the question: why is the wise person on the rack of torture at all? Typically, in these cases, people are being tortured for a reason: to force them to disclose information or as punishment for a past action. In the Stoic version of this idea, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise person is being tortured because of his commitment to a social, political or military role. Stoic ethics, in sharp contrast to Epicurean ethics, presents involvement in family and political life as a normal part of a full human life. So, implied in the Stoic version of this ideal is the thought that the wise person undergoes torture as a consequence of his social commitment (I’ll give a Stoic example shortly).

This gives an added level to the happiness of the wise person, even in these extreme circumstances. He is happy because his actions in this situation express commitment to a role or obligation that he sees as being crucially important in his life. This role provides a proper context in which to exercise the virtues, including the virtue of courage or what the Stoics call ‘magnanimity’ – that is, rising above current difficulties with the aim of performing a genuinely worthwhile act, which benefits other people or the community as a whole. Some of the other marks of happiness, such as psychological cohesion or unity, and freedom from misguided emotions or passions, are also naturally linked with his single-minded commitment to fulfilling one’s social role, and thus not disclosing information wanted by the torturer or accepting the torturer’s dominance. This social dimension helps to make sense of the Stoic ideal and to bring out the rationale for the idea that the wise person is happy even in this situation. 

I’ll end by discussing some possible ancient and modern examples of the Stoic ideal. The Roman general Regulus is taken by Cicero, in On Duties 3, as an example of this kind of ideal. Regulus voluntarily went back to Carthage to likely torture and death for two reasons. He had acted in line with his public duty in not arranging an exchange of prisoners (several young Carthaginian prisoners in return for himself), which he saw as disadvantageous to Rome. And he returned because he had sworn an oath to his enemies that, if he did not arrange this exchange of prisoners, he would go back to Carthage. The depictions by Cicero, and Horace (quoted at the end), bring out many of the key features of this ideal: Regulus’ act is presented as an expression of ‘magnanimity’ or courage; his single-minded commitment enables him to be free of emotions running counter to this ethical choice. He is thus ‘happy’, in a number of senses, on the rack of torture or in preparing to face torture.

It is worth thinking about other possible examples of this ideal: for instance, the modern example of Admiral James Stockdale who drew on the principles of the Stoic Epictetus (especially his distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’) to maintain his sense of integrity and resistance during repeated torture when a prisoner in the Vietnam war. There are also other possible Stoic-style modern examples, including Nelson Mandela in his long imprisonment in South Africa under the apartheid system, and the Indian political activist Gandhi, who endured voluntary starvation and other physical privations in his long and eventually successful opposition to British rule in India.

I think what these examples bring out is that the Stoic ideal, while initially seeming rather extreme and unrealistic, captures recognisable features of courageous response to extreme physical pain and hardship  and ones that are by no means confined to these examples of well-known male public heroism. We moderns too, I think, can make sense of the ideal of the wise person happy on the rack and can aspire to live this ideal out in our lives, if need be.

Regulus passages:

Entering the senate, he revealed his instructions … he claimed that it was not beneficial to restore the captives; they were young men and leaders while he was worn out by old age. His authority prevailed, and the captives were kept there. He himself returned to Carthage, held back neither by love for his country nor for his family and friends. Moreover, he knew well that he was going to a very cruel enemy and most sophisticated torture.

Cicero, On Duties, 1.100: Trans. Griffin and Atkins, 1991

It is said that he kept himself apart from the kisses of his faithful wife and small children as if he was no longer a citizen and sternly lowered his manly face to the ground. Then he swayed the senate, who were in doubt about what to do, offering his unparalleled advice [to send him back to Carthage], and in the midst of his sorrowing friends he hurried away, an exile of distinction. Even so he knew what the barbarian torturer was getting ready for him.

Horace, Odes 3.5.41-50. My trans

Relevant reading on Epicurus:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 21 (pleasure), 24 (death), and 15 (sensation, imagination, memory)
  • L. P. Gerson and B. Inwood, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, 1994).
  • J. Warren, Facing death: Epicurus and his critics (Oxford, 2004).
  • J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness. Oxford, 1993), ch. 16.
  • V. Tsouna, (2009) ‘Epicurean therapeutic strategies’, pp. 249-65 in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Ed. J. Warren (Cambridge, 2009). 

Relevant reading on the Stoic ideal: 

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 63 (the end and happiness), 65 (emotions), and 57 (on ethical development).
  • J. Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley 2006), ch. 5.
  • Cicero, Tusculan Disputations Book 5 (on ancient ideas about how to gain peace of mind, including Stoic and Epicurean ideas).
  • R. Sorabji, Gandhi and the Stoics (Oxford, 2012)
  • J. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, 1995). 
  • C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), ch. 2.

Katharine O’Reilly is lecturer in ancient philosophy at King’s College, London.

Chris Gill is emeritus professor of ancient thought at the University of Exeter.

Marcus to Malpractice to Montaigne by Mary Braun

A car crosses the midline and kills one of my patients. Perhaps it is the elderly diabetic who I’ve been telling for years to move to assisted living. I’m so sure she’s going to fall and break a hip, living at home alone at 95. I was wrong. I should have warned her against going grocery shopping. It might be the forty year old woman with the weight loss and stomach pain that we never could pin down. She was worried she would die a slow, painful death of pancreatic cancer, which is notoriously difficult to find until it’s quite large. Neither of us need worry. It seems she barely saw her actual death coming. Perhaps it was the mid-twenty year old who finally accepted treatment for his anxiety, the one who now had his first girlfriend, his first job, and would never see further firsts. He was so worried about side effects of the medication that he spent years in his parent’s basement, watching youtube. The med did not affect the other driver’s ability to stay awake. 

Thus, the lesson of memento mori (that one may be plucked from the living without warning at any moment) is daily presented to the primary care doctor. Patients come in with symptoms that I think will kill them that turn out to be minor ailments and no symptoms at all that turn out to be the first warning of their terminal diagnosis. 

Stoicism is rife with reminders of the shortness of life. Epictetus encourages us to remember how transient are those we love (From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there is saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’?” Discourses, 3.24, 88). Would my elderly diabetic have had a different phone conversation with her grandson on Friday afternoon if she knew she was going to die Saturday morning?

Marcus encouraged us to meditate frequently on our death (And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last Meditations 2.5). Marcus was encouraging himself to think about his death as a way to focus himself on what is important. If she realized that it would be be the last time she sat at her writing desk, my forty year old with belly pain may have been a little more focussed than if she thought she had an endless stream of mornings stretched out in front of her.

In letter 101, Seneca encourages Lucilius to focus on his death as a way to focus on what’s important and reduce his anxiety (Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind.) My poor, young anxious man may have enjoyed his life more if he had recognized its potential brevity.

The exercise of reminding myself how close at hand death is works well for me when I consider my personal life, but the result from a professional point of view is opposing. I find Stoicism helps to a point, and then reach to another of the Hellenistic philosophies, Pyrrhonism, for help with the rest.

Personally, when I imagine myself near to death, I am able to see what I really value. Providing high quality, individualized care to complicated, medically fragile people is such a thing. It’s important work, it is a job that suits my particular skills and there is a need for it now. I practice in a way that I am proud of. I treat my patients with dignity, encourage autonomy, independence, and help them make decisions that support their particular values, goals and preferences. I help patients get what they consider good outcomes. When I think about nearing death, the way I have taken care of my patients is one of the things I take comfort in personally.  For my personal goals, I would not change the way I practice if I knew I was near death.

Primary care offers opportunities for courage: I am often forced to tell people things they really don’t want to hear; equanimity: I can remain calm when these patients become angry; wisdom: I can respond wisely to these patients even when it would be easier to respond to their demands. I feel I’m up to the task most days and when I’m not, considering that this may be the last opportunity I have to interact with this particular patient, due to the fleeting nature of both of our lives (or possibly due to their insurance changing) does help me find wisdom I might otherwise not be able to. The memento mori practice helps.

When I consider my practice habits from a professional point of view, however, and recall that I am dying soon, I am tempted to practice differently. In particular, if I knew that I was going to die after a short retirement or, worse yet, in the saddle, I might concentrate on making what seemed to me to be  defensible decisions, rather than decisions that seem best for the particular patient in front of me.

They teach us in med school that the most common time for a doctor to be sued is in the three years after their death. The lawsuit doesn’t matter to the dead doctor, of course, because they’re dead, but it can massively inconvenience their families if their estate gets tied up in court.

They tell us that people who might have been on the fence about suing me while I was alive will sue me after I die. They might think my care was less than ideal, but like me so they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by suing me. Once I’m dead, however, I won’t have any feelings to hurt and they can feel free to sue me. 

Dead doctors are relatively easy marks because not only are we unable to defend ourselves from the grave, but the usual impediments to settling a case are removed. Being dead, I will not care about my reputation. Perhaps there are relevant details that died with me: my medical reasoning or delicate, personal revelations from the patient. I can’t be summoned to present this information. My kind personality will not help me here; the judge will never meet me. They will not be able to see how devoted I was to my patients or get a sense of how hard I tried to do what was best for them.

The lawyer will recommend that my estate settle especially if it’s not a large amount.

When I think about dying soon from this perspective, it makes me feel scattered and causes me to second guess every decision. I worry that each decision is not defensible and will lead to huge inconvenience for my family. 

If I get too far into second guessing, it hampers my ability to make good decisions in the present. Remembering that any of my patients (or even worse, their heirs after they die) may sue me at any moment for any reason distracts me from the important work at hand. The decision that is most defensible is not always the decision that is best for the patient and if I am maximizing my care for being defensible, I am not maximizing my care for my patients’ best interest. Practicing medicine in any way that is not in my patients’ best interest pricks my conscience. Am I acting wisely if I am prioritizing the minimization of my legal exposure down the road? My equanimity is seriously disturbed at this point. Consideration of the proximity of my death has encouraged less, not more, virtuous action, simply as a practical matter. 

Then I return to the personal view. When I consider the fact that I am dying and perhaps sooner than I might think, I want to feel like I’m using my time well. Why am I wasting my precious time being a doctor who practices like there is something more important than individualized, patient centered, exquisitely tailored care? I am distressed. Perhaps I had better retire now. How do I ever make any medical decisions? My worry can get out of control pretty quickly here and I can find myself concentrating on the effect of our medical decisions on me rather than their effects on the patient. Now, I have become the very opposite of the kind of doctor I want to be. 

Once again, Epictetus has some help to offer me: “some things are in our control and some things, not.” The next sentence points out that my actions are under my control. So far, so good. The next: other people’s actions are not under my control. Whether my patient chooses to sue my estate is not under my control. I can act in ways to decrease the chances of it, but if I fail at what I can control in an attempt to control something I cannot control, why exactly would I even be a doctor. 

There are things I can do now to minimize my risk of a future lawsuit, but after I am dead, I cannot control anything. Control of other people after I’m dead is what I’m trying to do. I cannot control other people while I am alive. I doubt I’ll be more effective when I’m dead! Research says that by providing my patients with careful care and making sure they feel heard, I can minimize my risk of lawsuits in the future. This might be considered as the “partially out of my control” arm of the trichotomy of control that Bill Irvine proposes. However, the decisions a patient’s family members might make after my patient’s death are completely out of my control. There is nothing I can do to develop a relationship with someone I have not met. 

To recap, at this point, I am concerned about an outcome that is only partially, if at all, under my control. The ways I can control my behavior to minimize the chances of this outcome are clear. Some of them are acceptable, or even laudable, such as working to develop a good relationship with my patients. Some of them are objectionable, such as ordering test I don’t really think the patient needs in order to protect myself from a potential lawsuit. I can consider how I will feel about my honor and professional judgment if I practice in this way and that helps restrain my actions, but sometimes it is not enough. I may still feel some temptation to practice unwisely.

I think about my death and its consequences for my daughter who is currently a college freshman. I imagine a lawsuit. If my estate were tied up in court, would she have to sit out until it was sorted out? What a disaster for her! This thought leads me away from practicing in the best interest of my patient again. 

Another Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, can come to my assistance here. Pyrrhonism asks me to consider what I really know. Do I really know it’s a bad thing for my daughter to have to wait a year or two out of college while my estate gets settled? Do I really know it would be a bad thing for her to have to support herself for a couple of years without the benefit of a college degree or my financial help? Judging the goodness or badness of things that have not come to pass seems quite foolish. 

Montaigne summarized this line of reasoning as a maxim: “What do I know?” In other words, perhaps a lawsuit and inability to pay her college tuition would be difficult for my daughter, but perhaps she would find a scholarship or perhaps she would do something else with the time that would provide her with a better life course. I can’t know ahead of time. I am considering acting today in a way that is against my professional vow of fiduciary beneficence in order to minimize the impact of an outcome that might or might not ever come to pass, which is out of my control and might not even be a bad thing. This seems foolish. 

Stoicism has helped me be a better doctor, but has uncovered, and only partially abated, other areas of anxiety. Pyrrhonism has helped out here. My patients, if they only knew, would thank the ancients for their contribution to their doctor’s equanimity.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.