Roman Stoicism for High-School and College Students by Frank Breslin

Most people grow up with a big picture of life, a code of conduct, a sense of direction, meaning, and purpose, and an overall philosophy of life. It’s called religion. It gives them all the answers even before they understand the questions.  But they don’t see this as a philosophy of life, but as reality itself. They remain in this reality, more or less, for the rest of their lives. However, as they grow older, some may find themselves dissatisfied with this philosophy, which they were born into, and choose their own philosophy, and sometimes it’s Stoicism.  Why?

Because it’s a total world view, a new reality, which they have chosen themselves, and that gives their lives structure, discipline, clarity, purpose, and direction, especially when they live is a society without norms, purpose, or publicly-shared values as we live in today, where the meaning of everything has disappeared and there are no guidelines or answer-key to anything.

These converts to Stoicism don’t want to have been born into a philosophy or religion about which they had no say and is the result of chance, fate, or providence; they want to choose it themselves, because they’ve examined it themselves as something meaningful to them, the result of personal choice. Other kindred spirits have likewise chosen Stoicism and are members of this same philosophical brotherhood and sisterhood who partake of their new and commonly-shared view of the world.

It was a similar situation with the Greeks and Romans, with some differences, They had Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which functioned as a kind of Bible with a warrior code of the great Achilles, a code centuries later outgrown in the cities. They also had their myths learned as children, and their various mystery religions, which greatly influenced Early Christianity. However, the educated classes of both cultures took a skeptical view regarding these three sources and viewed them, essentially, as fairy tales.

These classes tended to gravitate to philosophy, Stoicism in particular, which served the same purpose as religion did for the people. Only the emphasis was upon rational inquiry without regard for ritual or religious doctrine. At the heart of Stoicism was intellectual study among the philosophical brotherhoods, which may also have influenced monastic Christianity in the Greek-speaking world.

However, the primary emphasis was always upon leading a virtuous life without ostentation, emotion, or religious motivation like pleasing God or going to heaven.  They did it because it was the rational thing to do as one’s duty. Emotional displays would have struck them as vulgar. Stoicism was a cerebral affair as you will see below and appealed to a certain kind of temperament.


Deorum immortalium munus quod vivimus, philosophiae quod bene vivimus. 

Life is a gift of the immortal gods; right living, of philosophy (Seneca, Moral Letters, 90. 1).

Living life and living the “examined life” are two different ways of being human. Religion didn’t teach educated Greeks and Romans how to be a good person; this was done by philosophy, specifically the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca. Today, it might be the works of Rilke, Goethe, Hesse, Keats, Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and others. Whatever author challenges you to be more than you are, drink deeply from this fountain until you find the next oasis.   Live with their visions and, if you find them congenial, make them your own.

Frugalitatem exigit philosophia, non poenam

Philosophy calls for plain living, not punishment (Seneca, Moral Letters, 5. 5).

Ancient philosophy embodied the Greek ideal of the Golden Mean — moderation in all things, avoiding excess of any kind, whether by doing too much or too little.  Avoid both extremes of punishing or dissipating yourself by choosing the Middle Way.  Don’t push yourself beyond your limit, but don’t pamper yourself, either. You will see others who live at either extreme. Learn from them to find your Golden Mean.

You may come across different kinds of philosophy during your life. Find the one that speaks to you.  For some, it may be the Greeks and Romans; for others, existentialism, or a particular thinker or series of thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Walter Kaufmann, Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, all of whom may nourish your spirit in different ways. Or you could find yourself intrigued by a certain philosophical question, or you may read a history of philosophy for the Big Picture. Many paths lead to the mountaintop.

Follow your own inner compass and what captures your interest. As with everything in life, it’s a matter of trial and error.  You may see a name in a footnote, or someone recommends a book or author, or you may take a course and someone’s name is favorably mentioned. As long as you’re learning, stay with it if it’s working for you.

It’s normal to feel lost and spend some time in the wilderness where you must find your own direction when you don’t even want to touch a book.  Then life itself becomes your book as you observe life more keenly while being guided by yourself. As long as you’re searching, you’re on the right path.

Est profecto animi medicina philosophia

The true medicine for the soul is philosophy (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 3. 3. 6).

Ancient philosophy addressed itself only to the educated classes, which considered self-cultivation of paramount importance. Philosophy was not only medicine for the soul in coping with life’s successes and failures, but also a guide for an ethical life. However, philosophy didn’t concern itself with the poor because they couldn’t read and were so intent on survival that they had neither the leisure nor money to attend the lectures of philosophers.  Life for the poor was a series of shotgun blasts even to consider visiting what they might have considered a spiritual spa, dismissed out of hand as self-indulgence.

If you see life as a perpetual merry-go-round, this could also be an invitation to living an authentic life as Lear discovered amidst the raging storm on the heath when he realized what the poor had been enduring for centuries. You can have your own set of ethical principles hammered together on the anvil of life, the only real teacher of philosophy.

Or you can go to any well-stocked bookstore or university library, visit the philosophy section and find any number of the classics and more recent works.  If you’re a freshman at a university, you might want to ask some upperclassmen or graduate students in philosophy for some titles.  Tell them your interests, and you will find them geysers of information. The more students you ask, the more books you’ll have waiting for you. And, of course, you don’t have to limit yourself only to philosophers for philosophy. You can find guidance in other genres as well: poetry, novels, plays, biographies, essays, or walking in nature with a well-thumbed book of letters by Keats.

Philosophiae servias oportet, ubi tibi contingat vera libertas

To be truly free you must subject yourself to philosophy (Seneca, Moral Letters, 8. 7).

Philosophy can protect you from the allurements of the world by taking a long-term view of our all-too-brief lives by not getting lost in the moment. Other philosophers choose the opposite path by encouraging you to savor the moment lest you miss the experience of living itself.  If you live in your mind in a world of abstractions, you might want to consider spending less time with your thoughts and more with life’s simple pleasures. As David Hume once said, first be a human being, and only then be a philosopher, as though he were reminding us that we are not disembodied thinking-machines, but flesh-and-blood creatures in need of a balanced life for a balanced philosophy and view of the world.

Philosophy should enhance the living of life, not be its substitute, for having a life is much more important than having a philosophy, which should only serve to live life more fully, and not be an excuse for escaping from it. We must give both aspects of our nature its due by being a well-balanced person, reverencing both body and spirit, since each cannot properly function without the other, since a sickly body may cause a warped view of life.  A proper diet, regular exercise, fresh air and sunshine, and a sense of humor may be of more value than two volumes of Plato.

Anything good or wholesome can itself be abused when driven to excess, which is why the Greeks were forever preaching the necessity of maintaining moderation in everything they did.  Even too much thinking can unfit us for life, as it was Hamlet’s tragic flaw as he kept going round and round like Chesterton’s madman because he never learned to forget and act.

If we haven’t had a life, a real and personal experience with our own here-and-now, we haven’t had anything. Life must come first, and only then its commentary, for life must be lived, not endlessly thought about like Hamlet, whose overthinking made him a sick animal for whom thinking became his curse.

It’s even important to have a good friend like Horatio or a few friends, a second self or selves whom we can trust in dark times.  How much worse would Hamlet have been without Horatio to steady him as he peered down upon the human condition from the vertiginous heights of his mind like Icarus who spurned the Golden Mean by flying too high.?  Or poor Harry Haller of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the gentleman lodger who never learned to laugh at himself and the absurdities of life instead of making the Ideal his God and refusing to accept his shadow.

There are some who give themselves to philosophy because they view the world as a pastry shop, which must be shunned as though they were on a perpetual diet. For these individuals, the world’s sole purpose is to be avoided as an eternal distraction, enticement, or threat. What is all-important for them is not to lose their focus on what they feel is essential in life, which they view as a snare and delusion, in much the same way as Christian does in Bunyan’s masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, while someone else would see Bunyan’s vision of life and the world as something terribly wrong because it is a view of the world driven to excess by not observing the Golden Mean.

There are as many different views of the world as there are human beings. This is why it’s important to familiarize yourself with several of them by reading, travel, philosophy, or talking to different kinds of people to get a sense of life’s infinite possibilities, lest one think that the theory of life you happened to grow up with was the only way of viewing the world.

Vivere est militare

To live is to do battle (Seneca, Moral Letters, 96. 5).

For philosophers, life is an inner battle between themselves and the world, which must be overcome by being shunned or ignored if one is to remain focused on oneself, one’s life, and one’s inner code and mission. One is inordinately careful in dealing with the world lest it weaken one’s resolve in keeping to one’s pre-ordained path. One is in the world, but not of it by trying to improve it like that charismatic young German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhöffer, whose life cast a spell over everyone who felt privileged to know him.

Or one can see this life as a place in need of radical fixing, where one can help others by involving oneself in one of the helping professions or politics as a calling or vocation to make this world more humane like the young French philosopher, Simone Weil, who transcends definition as a mystical presence. Or one becomes a public intellectual engaging with a wilderness of questions to bring a transcendent viewpoint to bear upon America a century ago like Walter Lipmann, who saw this world as a field hospital where one tries to heal a wounded humanity, or that incomparable Olympian Noam Chomsky, a beacon of inspiration in these darkest of times.

Tota philosophorum vita commentatio mortis est

The entire life of philosophers is a preparation for death (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 1. 30. 74).

To modern ears, this has a decidedly morbid ring, but to upper-class Romans it was this view of Stoic philosophy that kept them true to themselves, so that death would end a life of duty, honor, and service like the Prussian Junker class of old.  This Stoic ideal was abandoned by some as riches and oppressive taxation extorted from the conquered provinces began pouring into Rome to corrupt the pristine simplicity of Roman life.  Riches unhinge the soul in any age as one descends into madness by amassing an endless number of soulless objects to fill an inner void.

To the old-school Stoics, however, living was still a religious calling that kept their iron purpose alive as the ethical compass of their lives.  Death colored their entire outlook, and the Stoical life was always about keeping themselves unsullied from the world, especially from the contagion of the East and what they viewed as its unhinged otherworldliness that began to infect old Roman values. Stoicism was their Rock of Gibraltar that kept them sane and grounded in the ideals of their traditional world they could no longer recognize. Nevertheless, their Stoical code enabled this small coterie of beleaguered Roman families to maintain aa inner distance from what they beheld from all sides closing in upon them.

Barbam et pallium, philosophum nondum video

I see your [philosopher’s] beard and cloak, but I still don’t see a philosopher (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 9. 2. 4).

I’ll let Aulus Gellius himself tell the story.  To Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, renowned for his personal charm and Grecian eloquence, there once came, when I was present, a man in a cloak, with long hair and a beard that reached almost to his waist, and asked that money be given him for bread. 

Then Herodes asked him who on earth he was, and the man, with anger in his voice and expression, replied that he was a philosopher, adding that he wondered why Herodes thought it necessary to ask what was obvious. “I see,” said Herodes, “your beard and cloak; but I still don’t see a philosopher. I pray you, be so good as to tell me by what evidence you think we may recognize you as a philosopher.”

Meanwhile some of Herodes’ companions told him that the man was a vagabond of worthless character, who frequented foul dives and was in the habit of being shamefully abusive if he did not get what he demanded. Thereupon Herodes said: “Let us give him some money, whatever his character may be, not because he is a man, but because we are men,” and he ordered enough money to be given him to buy bread for thirty days.

Authenticity of life shouldn’t be judged by external symbols — the beard & cloak being the standard garb of a philosopher, much like the cowl and beret of a monk and an artist. Be the thing itself and one won’t need such outward signs to proclaim one’s inner worth.  They should only serve to remind oneself of who one is or at least aspires to be in bearing witness to the world that one is a philosopher or whatever one’s role might be in this great play of life.

As to our philosopher, we see that he wore his garb not to bear witness to the noble ideal of philosophy in a fallen world, but to reveal his vanity and garner the tokens of esteem that might accrue to his presumed office. Instead of being indifferent to such trifles of public adulation and dedicated to the sublime calling of the philosophical life, he proved himself unworthy of that lofty Ideal.

Quis nam igitur liber?   Sapiens, sibi imperosus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who rules himself (Horace, Satires, 2. 7. 83).

Horace points to a simple truth preached by the Stoics that only someone who has mastered his emotions is really free rather than someone who becomes their slave and plaything.                   

That said, however, the following are four criticisms made of Stoicism.

The first criticism takes issue with Stoicism’s insistence on bearing one’s sufferings without at the same time trying to change the conditions that cause them.  One should protest the structural wrongs of society, be they the social, economic, or political systems that oppress human beings and cause social injustice. Otherwise, one only perpetuates these moral wrongs, something which any tyrannical government would want of its people rather than revolting to change them.

Stoicism induces passivity and unwittingly plays into the hands of oppressors as a weapon in their arsenal against a population. Patience, resignation, and forbearance were preached to bear the ills of life, a reason why governments always fostered Stoicism or religion as an antidote to rebellion.

The rebuttal is that, in antiquity, attacking the conditions that caused social injustice wouldn’t even have occurred to philosophers to whom the way things were was simply “the will of the gods.” The attitudinal change of toppling governments responsible for this social injustice occurred only centuries later with the English, American, French, and Russian Revolutions.

Moreover, it is virtually impossible even today to rid an advanced nation like America of social injustice owing to the obstructionism of the Republican Party. The system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful who control Congress through legalized bribery, a.k.a. campaign contributions, a far-right Supreme Court, and forty percent of an electorate enamored of Donald Trump, although there are some hopeful signs that a change may be coming.

The second criticism contends that Stoicism relies on human effort alone without including the need for prayer and divine grace in having the strength and courage to bear the ills of this world.

The rebuttal is that this is a theological objection, which assumes a dark Augustinian view of human nature as inherently weak and sinful, whereas Stoicism had a more optimistic view of humanity, essentially Pelagian in character with no need of God’s help in developing a moral conscience, since human nature was essentially good.

The third criticism dismisses as wishful thinking Stoicism’s assumption of a rational order in the universe based on divine providence. The confidence that supported antiquity’s Stoical creed in God’s guiding hand over the cosmos and human affairs, while comforting to believe, is no longer universally held in the Western world since the Enlightenment.  The Holocaust is perhaps the most recent example of some who cannot conceive of a God who would stand idly by and allow the murder of six million Jews.

The rebuttal is that divine providence does, indeed, exist despite the disbelief of a secular age. It should also be noted, however, that both the belief and disbelief in providence are both metaphysical theories beyond empirical verification. They both may be possible, but neither is certain.

The fourth criticism is psychological in nature. Stoicism undermines emotional health by repressing the feelings.

Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret.  

Though you drive nature out with a pitchfork, it will always return (Horace, Epistles, 1. 10. 24).

The Return of the Repressed. If you do something wrong and try to forget it, you will never succeed because the guilt will return to haunt you as it did with Lady Macbeth. Nightmares, sleepwalking, and the symbolical washing of hands of the blood of King Duncan finally led to her madness and suicide.

Or if someone does something wrong and knows that it’s wrong, but tries to convince himself that it wasn’t in an attempt to deny that guilt, he may have an uncanny string of accidents that put him in the hospital. Were these “accidents” actually unconscious ways of punishing himself for the unacknowledged guilt he tries to repress? The rebuttal to the fourth criticism would be that others may not be affected by such presumed guilt, like professional assassins.

Vitiant artus aegrae contagia mentis

A sick mind affects the body (Ovid, Sorrows, 3. 8. 25).

Think wholesome thoughts and you may have a healthy body. If you’re an inveterate pessimist, on the other hand, who loves bad news and is always down on yourself and others, it may affect your health by psychosomatic illness: a physical sickness caused by the mind when there is nothing wrong with the body.

Or the mental stress of unemployment and the inability to feed one’s family may give one headaches, ulcers, nightmares, and even drive one to domestic violence.  The mind and body are inextricably interlinked in reciprocal relationship: mental stress causes physical problems, which rob one of one’s peace of mind and exacerbate a heart condition.

Those beautiful people, the Amish, strive to live out the Gospel in their everyday lives when an outsider breaks into their schoolhouse and shoots five little girls and then kills himself. The Amish community forgives the dead shooter, attends his funeral, embraces his widow and family, and later takes up a collection to help them. It is an awe-inspiring deed of noble Christian forgiveness. For years they deal with their grief, but where does the anger go?

This psychological criticism does concede, however, that the ancient Stoics had no idea about the Unconscious and the psychological damage caused by repressed feelings. Modern advocates of Stoicism, on the other hand, deny that any such damage occurs. What is needed today, however, is a frank discussion between psychologists and Stoic philosophers about the effects of the will repressing the emotions and the possible damage to emotional health. Until this happens, there will remain a lingering suspicion about the possible negative emotional effects of this noble creed.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (IV, 3) The reconciliation scene after Brutus and Cassius quarrel before the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. It illustrates an example of the possible ill-effects of repressing grief.

Cassius: I did not think you could have been so angry.
Brutus: O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs.
Cassius: Of your philosophy you make no use,
If you give place to accidental evils.
Brutus: No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead.
Cassius: Ha! Portia!
Brutus: She is dead.
Cassius: How ‘scaped I killing when I cross’d you so?
O insupportable and touching loss!
Upon what sickness?
Brutus: Impatient of my absence,
And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony
Have made themselves so strong: for with her death
That tidings came; with this she fell distract,
And, her attendants absent, swallow’d fire.
Cassius: And died so?
Brutus: Even so.
Cassius: O ye immortal gods!

Re-enter Lucius, with wine and tapers.

Brutus: Speak no more of her. Give me a bowl of wine.
In this I bury all unkindness, Cassius.
Cassius: My heart is thirsty for that noble pledge.
Fill, Lucius, till the wine o’erswell the cup;
I cannot drink too much of Brutus’ love.
Brutus: Come in, Titinius!

Exit Lucius. Re-enter Titinius, with Messala

Brutus: Welcome, good Messala.
Now sit we close about this taper here,
And call in question our necessities.
Cassius:Portia, art thou gone?
Brutus: No more, I pray you.

Brutus, a grief-stricken commander heroically steeled for battle; a paragon of iron self-discipline despite personal tragedy at the loss of a beloved wife; a human being of godlike composure based on repression of feelings bought at the terrible price of a damaged humanity?


In this brief sampling of quotations, you will have noticed the following qualities: control, discipline, measure, firm grip on emotion, scrutiny of motive, and striving toward perfection. This mode of living set the Stoics apart from the people, whose lives were chaotic since they were barely surviving, Control of their reactions to events, as Epictetus would have wished, was beyond them.

If you are a high-school wrestler or know them, you will have noticed that during the wrestling season they lead very disciplined lives, religiously doing their daily exercises and eating sparingly like Spartan warriors. They epitomize the iron-like control of the Stoics in their fealty to a noble philosophy, which was not merely a matter of study, but of living that gave their lives style as models of decorum and rectitude.

How did they do it?  Not for a day, a week, or a month, but every day, for years, even while no one was looking. Not everyone could do it, and it is this that set them apart as paragons to admire.  There’s an old German saying, Man kann, wenn man muss. You can when you have to.  It’s a matter of attitude, discipline, and principle, which are not sold in bottles.  The Stoics, a name to conjure with!


Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher in the New Jersey public school system.

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