Stoicism Today Blog

Death and Stoicism by Harald Kavli

How we face death is an ever-recurring theme in the texts of the Roman Stoics. As a frequent reader of these texts, I have at times wondered why they were so preoccupied with death. What is the value of being aware over your own mortality, and can thinking about death make us live better lives?

Contemplating Death

Most of us do not spend any more time reflecting over our mortality than we have to. We live in societies where we are far more sheltered from death than has ever been the case, especially those of us who live in Western societies. Modern medicine and our healthcare systems have allowed most of us to reach a high age, and the corona epidemic, which although it should not be underestimated, is still nothing compared to past epidemics, which have left entire cities desolate.

I don’t think it’s unusual to reach my age (33)  without having seen a  dead person, or having lost someone you care about. Death appears as something that largely concerns others, or at worst   ourselves in a very distant future. This situation seems to be a quite recent development. You do not have to go back further than a few generations before things that are now quite manageable, like a cardiac arrest, were something much more serious which would more often than not end in death.

Wars are also largely a distant memory in Western-Europe, and although western-European soldiers have been deployed in several wars since WW2, those wars have been fought in foreign lands.  Trade and technology have distanced us from nature, in that poor harvests rarely have any direct consequences for most our lives beyond an increase in the cost of food, which in the West is mostly quite manageable.  

Therefore, I do not think that it is strange that many of us would consider contemplating death to be a weird habit. I do think, however, that there are good reasons to reflect on the fact that we will die one day. Contemplating death can that we will die provides guidance on how we live until we die, and it can help us spend our time better. As Seneca,  wrote:

Can you show me even one person who sets a price on his time, who knows the worth of a day, who realizes that every day is a day when he is dying? In fact, we are wrong to think that death lies ahead: much of it has passed us by already, for all our past life is in the grip of death.

Epistle 1.2

If we are able to set a price on our time, to know the worth of a day, and to realize that every day is indeed a day when we are dying, it seems clear to me that there will be certain ways of being in the world that will seem more meaningful than others. As long as we consider death to be something that happens to other people, or to our distant selves, we might end up treating ourselves as immortals, in some sense. If we do recognize our mortality, however, we might act like people act when they know that they do not have much time left. We might get a desire to at least intend to settle old scores, to right past wrongs, to not waste so much time and try to squeeze more life out of every day. 

And likewise, there are certain states of mind and activities that will begin to seem ridiculous if we are able to be conscious of our mortality. How much sense does it really make to go around and sulk over some past slight, over the potential partner who rejected you, the job you applied for, but didn’t get, or the professor who gave you a poorer grade than you felt that you deserved? Or what about all the things we do to kill time, or merely thoughtless habits,  which more often than not fail to even bring us pleasure, like binge-watching half-good shows on Netflix or long trips down a rabbit hole on YouTube.

In other words, we see that death can be a lens which we see life through, and help us to assess what has and does not have value. In chapter 34 of the Enchiridion, Epictetus gives us an advice on how we can resist temptations. He encourages us to not only consider the pleasure that we might get from a certain object or activity, but also how you would feel after you have gained the object or preformed the activity. While Epictetus is main point here seems to be a way for us to resist temptations, it seems quite possible to extend this perspective to the way we spend our time.

How will you feel at the end of the day if all you have done is to watch Netflix? And if you reflect over the amount of time that you spend sulking over past wrongs, do you really think that the time that you spent sulking was time well spent? Death adds something even more to this exercise, since a consciousness of our mortality will also make us conscious over the fact that the number of days that we will live on this planet is finite. And since our time here is limited, it seems plausible that we can waste it. Viewed through this lens, it becomes easier to see that we are indeed wasting time. At the very least we can do what Seneca claimed that he had accomplished when he said that “I cannot say that nothing has been wasted, but at least I can say what, and why, and how; I can state the causes of my impoverishment.” (Epistle 1.4.) In other words, while it seems quite a challenge to waste no time, we can at the very least hope to waste less of it.

Another perspective that the Stoics drew is that it is not the length of life that matters, but rather its content. How can we then ensure that the content of life is as good as it could be? I think that we can go far simply by looking at some of the low-hanging fruits, so to speak. I do not think that you need to agree with the Stoics’ claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness to follow along on what I have written so far, and I will not try to defend that claim here, but rather merely appeal to an intuition that most of us have over the value of virtue in and of itself.

While not all of us would go as far as the Stoics did, and say that this is sufficient, I think that we all can agree that things like justice, courage and so on are indeed virtues that we ought to strive for. We can also try to think of our lives as projects in which certain goals ought to be achieved, and time is the currency that we spend in order to fulfill those goals.

Fear of Death

Death seems terrifying for most us, and those of us who are not terrified of death are often calm due to the sense of distance between us and death. For Seneca, death was simply the end: all sensory impressions and cognitive abilities cease. He occasionally borrows some thoughts from Epicurus who said that “When we are, death is not, when death is, we are not.” (Letter to Meneocius)

It is possible to object to this, and claim that the evilness of death is rather that you are deprived of the opportunity to experience various goods that you could have experienced if you had still been alive. However, you won’t be able to perceive that you have lost the opportunity to achieve these goods. It is also possible to compare being dead with not having been born. Both are a form of non-existence, and since we cannot claim to have suffered any harm by the other, it makes sense to say that the first one should present any problem either. If death is just a cessation, death cannot itself be an evil.

For the Stoics, however, the fear of death itself is an evil. While they would claim that no harm befalls us when we die, we are harmed by spending our days in fear over something that we cannot escape, and we can very well end up doing harm to ourselves by the things that we do to extend our lives, such as for instance deserting from an army that is fighting a just war, failing to help someone who is about to be beaten to death or raped and other similar things, because we fear that we might get killed ourselves. Our fear of death can therefore have a devastating effect on our own character, as extreme situations can force us to do terrible actions to keep ourselves alive.

Also, the greatness of someone’s character can be seen especially clear in situations where their lives are on the line or where they are presented with an apparently great danger, such as Socrates during his trial, or Epicurus on his deathbed. For a more contemporary example, we can turn to Witold Pilecki who volunteered to go undercover in Auschwitz during WW2 in order to gather intelligence for the allied forces. One of the things that made these people great is that they had learned to consider their own deaths as something acceptable.

Furthermore, death remains beyond our own control. Although we eat healthy, shy away from danger, and refrain from drugs and alcohol, we might still slip on our way out of the shower and smash our heads into the floor. We are fragile creatures, and not much is required to kill us. While we can intend to take care of our bodies and extend our lives (and it most cases, we should), we can never be certain that we will succeed to achieve what we intend.

Therefore, we should intend to do these things with a reservation clause, and always be conscious over the fact that we might fail. Also, we should keep in mind that failing to extend our lives is not something horrible, and that death comes to us all regardless of what we do. This should not, however, be a license for us to waste our lives, either by destroying our bodies needlessly or wasting our time.

Although we cannot do anything about the fact that we are dying, we can do something about the very fear of dying. We can do this not by avoiding thinking about it, but rather by thinking clearly about it. By reflecting on death we can see that death is nothing to fear. For it is not death itself that is an evil. The problem is our perception of it as an evil. Getting rid of this notion is also something we ourselves can control.

The Stoics utilized several techniques for doing so, one of my favorites, although perhaps amongst the gloomier ones, comes from Marcus Aurelius: “Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” (Meditations X, 29). This, I think, can serve two purposes.

On the one hand, if you do this while you are stuck in traffic, on hold while calling some call center, or something like that, it can become quite clear that life consists of several things that it makes no sense to fear losing.

On the other hand, it can also encourage you to do more things that would at the very least make you pause to consider whether the answer could be ‘yes’, for instance if you do this while you are hugging your kids, reading philosophy or conducting brave and just actions.  

If you do feel that you must pause to consider whether death is something horrible because you cannot do this anymore, it may be necessary to take it a step further, and try to internalize the idea that death is a part of life, and that we are all actors in a play, and that our very mortality is one of the things that give life meaning. Would not everything seem to pale if they could not be lost? How could you even speak of wasting time, if the amount of time that you have at your disposal is infinite? Yet another exercise is to imagine some great person, either from your own life, or from history or from fiction, who faced death with equanimity.

This leads us into a bigger problem. How should we deal more generally with what is beyond our own control? Life is not the only thing we hold on to that we cannot control. For example, we care about others’ perceptions of ourselves, we want to avoid pain, and we want some form of material prosperity. These things are deeply beyond our control. We may intend to avoid apparent evils and achieve apparent benefits, but when we try to do so, we can tread wrongly and end up corrupting what is actually a good, our own character.

At this point, it might be prudent to say a few words about an important concept in Epictetus, prohairesis. While it is difficult to translate, the “faculty of will” seems to be a good choice. Our prohairesis is the only thing that is potentially perfectly within our own control. It is also something that we can use to add value to all of the things that are outside our control. While death, pain and bodily harm are not truly evil, enduring these things with equanimity when they cannot or should not be avoided is a good thing. 

The point is not that we should be completely apathetic (in the non-Stoic meaning of the word) to anything but our own character, but rather we should be detached from it, and realize that all that we have, we have borrowed, and that we can lose it at any time. Furthermore, we might follow Epictetus’ lead, and stop saying that we have lost something altogether, but rather that we have given something back. This is not the same as, to have any reasons for preferring something over something else but rather a form of interest with a reservation. Having an interest in staying alive with a reservation will in effect mean recognizing that you will die, that you cannot do anything about it, and that preserving our own character should be the highest goal, so that if one has to choose between saving your life, or preserving your own character, you must choose the latter.

I think that Witold Pilecki can be used as an example to show how we ought to do this, and how we might care about our own lives with a reservation. He was a married man, and had children, and while it is impossible for me to know what went through his mind when he volunteered to go undercover in Auschwitz, but it might very well be that he managed to see that while he had reasons for not risking his life, there was something that was more important, namely to do what is right, to stand up to injustice and to fight tyranny.


We have now seen a couple of Stoic perspectives on death, as well as how this affects the way we live our lives. This is by no means exhaustive, but I hope this text will be able to trigger a desire to continue reading about the Stoics. Since the Roman Stoics talk about it so frequently, all of their works can be recommended.

There is however, a more recent selection of annotated quotes primarily by Seneca called How to die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, edited, translated and introduced by James S. Romm. Also, for someone who would like to read a more modern philosopher who is still greatly indebted to the Stoics, Michel de Montaigne’s essay “To Philosophize is to Learn to Die” is highly recommended. Also, The Apology by Plato is of course essential reading. There are still important aspects of death that I have not directly addressed, such as how to deal with the death, suicide and euthanasia of others. There are also some features of the way the Stoics talk about death, which occasionally turns into something that almost seems like a longing for death.

In conclusion, I would say that the main point that I have been trying to put forward is that getting the right perspective on death is a way of getting the right perspective on life and how one should live it. The fact that life has an end gives it perspective and meaning. I choose to give the last words to Marcus Aurelius:. “Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.” (Meditations IV, 17)


  • Aurelius, Marucs. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays. The Modern Library: New York.
  • Epictetus. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press: Oxford. .
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters on Ethics to Lucilius. Translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long.  University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

Harald Kavli is a Masters Student in Philosophy at the University of Oslo. He is the organizer of the Oslo Stoics, and is currently translating Epictetus’ Discourses into Norwegian.

Stoic Inner Citadels by Greg Sadler

The image of each person having an “inner citadel” within their mind, which can be drawn upon as a resource and refuge, has proven particularly attractive to Stoics both ancient and modern.  That particular image of a walled-off interior space, and its catch-phrase from one classic Stoic text even furnished Pierre Hadot a title for his book, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus in fact invokes this idea at several points.  The citadel or fortress image comes up in this passage:

Remember that when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there, the mind is invulnerable. It does nothing against its will, even if its resistance is irrational. And if its judgment is deliberate and grounded in logic . . . ? The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.

Meditations, 8.48

Another passage dealing with the same idea frames this in terms of an internal refuge:

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.

Meditations 4.3

Reading this can provide consolation to those who feel themselves surrounded, set upon, tempted, and frustrated by the surrounding world.  And indeed, there is a common conception of Stoicism as if it were largely reducible to this theme, this promise, this movement within oneself.  The world, with all of its problems and its people, meets one with hostilities and humiliations.  No matter what one tries to plan, to predict, to control, the world keeps serving up defeats.  So, why not follow Epictetus’ advice?

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer.

Enchiridion 19

Withdraw your desire and aversion, he tells us, from those things that you don’t control and either other people or the workings of the world get to determine.  Focus on what is in your control, that is, what is within, and you’ll find yourself free, happy, undisturbed.  Isn’t that the central idea of Stoicism?

That is indeed how Stoicism has come to be portrayed, not just by some modern interpreters of Stoic philosophy and practice, but even more so by both admirers and critics of the Stoics.  It is a commonplace in histories of philosophy from the 19th century onward that Stoicism represented a withdrawal from a world and society that had come to be viewed as unpredictable, unmanageable, and unfree – finding the good within oneself – and also at the same time a way of steeling oneself to perform one’s duties as best one could – producing the good outside oneself in one’s actions. 

This motif is echoed in the William Ernst Henley poem, Invictus, which gets brought up quite a bit as inspiration.  He “thank[s] whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul,” and ends by asserting:  “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”  Everything else may have fallen apart, failed, or even attempted to crush this undefeated person, but they can at least claim one place where they are master and captain.  Despite the rhetorical flourish, it isn’t their fate – they don’t control that after all – but just their soul.

We might also think about Admiral James Stockdale’s discussions of how he applied Stoicism to survive within the intentionally harsh and hellish environment of North Vietnamese prison camps.  His essay discussing how he applied Stoic philosophy (and in particular that of Epictetus, and specifically that drawn from the short Enchiridion), Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, in fact ends by citing Henley’s Invictus.  In Stockdale’s case, he is already caught within an extensive external citadel, with walls turned inward, confining the prisoners. 

Notice though that Stockdale’s account doesn’t portray the would-be-Stoic as having this inner citadel that can provide a perfect refuge from the torture, deprivation, beatings, insults, and outright attempts to break a person.  Instead, he highlights the needs to develop indifference towards what lies outside of one’s control, and nevertheless to “play the game well” with those indifferents, to “stay off the hook” by avoiding compromises.  He admits: “The key word for all of us at first was ‘fragility.’”  Stockdale derived and practiced other lessons that have to do with one’s interiority

Epictetus: “For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus: “The judgment seat and a prison is each a place, the one high, the other low; but the attitude of your will can be kept the same, if you want to keep it the same, in either place.”

There is nothing by itself wrong, bad, or false in the metaphor itself of the inner citadel.  In fact, this same general trope gets used by many other non-Stoics down to the present.  One might think of the “interior castle” of the Christian writer Theresa of Avila, or the recent invocation of a “memory palace” in the BBC Sherlock series. So many other authors have highlighted the dimension of interiority as essential to human nature that one could likely compile an entire book simply out of those references.  And they equally referenced a possibility of deliberately withdrawing into that space.

The problem with the image of the inner citadel lies in its uncritical and often thoughtless invocation and use. Real Stoics – Marcus Aurelius included – don’t actually think that all of us just happen to have this wonderful, peaceful, safe place inside of ourselves that we can at will slip into.   As prudent readers, we ought to keep in mind that, although we may have the impression that Marcus is writing directly to us, what we actually have in his Meditations is his thoughts quite literally “to himself”.  He can remind himself of this all-too-easily overlooked possibility of retreating within an interior space of the self precisely because he has studied Stoic philosophy and has chosen to diligently apply it in practice within the scope of his life. 

He has been practicing a set of disciplines, engaging in spiritual practices, rooted in a systematic philosophical perspective.  Marcus may not be the legendary Stoic sage or “wise person”, but he certainly is one of the people working at and working through Stoicism, a prokopton or proficientes, a practitioner improving his own grasp of the “art of life”.

The image of a fortress and of protective walls within is used by Epictetus as well, in book 4 of his Discourses:

In this way, also, those who occupy a strong city mock the besiegers; “What trouble these men are now taking for nothing: our wall is secure, we have food for a very long time, and all other resources.” These are the things which make a city strong and impregnable: but nothing else than his opinions makes a man’s soul impregnable. For what wall is so strong, or what body is so hard, or what possession is so safe, or what honour so free from assault?

Notice the proviso in the first passage of Marcus above – “when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there”.  The ordinary person’s mind, without some training, is not going to have such a fortress available for them.  The mind not only needs to have undergone considerable development, through ongoing study, understanding, and practice of Stoic philosophy.  When one begins the ongoing and repeated process of looking within oneself, it is common to discover that one is worse off than one initially thought.  And this extends to the fortifications and defenses already set up within oneself by what Stoics called the vices.

In his long chapter examining the topic of what freedom is in book 4 of his Discourses, Epictetus develops this metaphor in a different way.

How then is a citadel demolished? Not by the sword, not by fire, but by opinion. For if we abolish the citadel which is in the city, can we abolish also that of fever, and that of beautiful women? Can we, in a word, abolish the citadel which is in us and cast out the tyrants within us, whom we have dally over us, sometimes the same tyrants, at other times different tyrants? But with this we must begin, and with this we must demolish the citadel and eject the tyrants, by giving up the body, the parts of it, the faculties of it, the possessions, the reputation, magisterial offices, honors, children, brothers, friends, by considering all these things as belonging to others. – 4.1

“With this we must begin”. The very process of using Stoic philosophy to recognize how badly off one is initially, and then to make progress towards freedom, virtue, and living in accordance with nature, involves identifying the tyrants already within us, and the citadels within which they reside and rule.  In order to have the newer, peaceful inner citadel at our disposal, we will likely have to wage long campaigns and sieges against the fortifications of enemies already established within us. 

Notice that, as the passage continues, after those other citadels have been neutralized, their traces nevertheless still remain inside our minds, and for quite a while, a person might remain warily on guard against them.  Epictetus points out:

And if tyrants have been ejected from us, why do I still shut in the citadel by a wall of circumvallation, at least on my account; for if it still stands, what does it do to me? Why do I still eject guards? For where do I perceive them? Against others they have their fasces, and their spears, and their swords. But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God.

After the long struggle against our mistaken views on matters, our misdirected desires and aversions, and the long-established habits that support and consolidate them, for some time, we will still have to remain on guard against temptations to fall back into those, to allow those to dominate and to determine.  The tyrants and guards may be driven out, but so long as the ruins of the walls remain, so long as the rudiments and roots of the vices remain, when we retreat within, we will need to keep up our vigilance, our attentiveness, our mindfulness – however you’d like to call it – against their return.

Clearly what we have in this image of the inner citadel as employed in Stoic philosophy is something considerably more complex and ambiguous than the notion of an inner retreat, walled off from the world. We might want to remind ourselves, whenever we are tempted to use it as an escape or a compensation against what we encounter outside ourselves, that not all interior citadels are spaces of refuge.  Many of us still have the work to do of identifying and tearing down those that do lie inside us, but are peopled by our own enemies within.  And we also have another labor, that of shoring up, expanding, and perhaps for some even building for the first time, a genuinely Stoic inner fortress.

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

Modern Stoicism – The Organization and What It Does

Modern Stoicism, Ltd has been an official non-profit organization since incorporating in 2017. Those of you who started reading Stoicism Today, participating in Stoic Week or the SMRT course, or going to the international Stoicon conferences before that likely remember that time of transition. But as Stoicism worldwide attracts more and more interest, and many new people start studying, practicing, and inquiring about it, we thought that it is probably time to provide an overview about the Modern Stoicism organization.

Sometime down the line, we’ll likely produce a sort of mini-documentary about the rise of interest in contemporary applications and interpretations of Stoicism over the last few decades and how that brought together a number of philosophers, psychotherapists, and professionals from other fields into a growing conversation about ancient Stoicism adapted to modern times. Suffice it to say that – as far as the Modern Stoicism organization goes – the original conference in 2012, and the following “Live Like A Stoic” week that came out of it, are one main starting point.

From that point onward, the working group regularly held an annual conference with talks, workshops, and symposia – what developed into Stoicon – and hosted the online class called “Stoic Week”, which did indeed (and still does) invite people to incorporate Stoic ideas and practices into their daily life to see what differences it makes for them. They also started the blog you’re reading right now, Stoicism Today, originally edited by Patrick Ussher. And from early on, the team began engaging in quantitative research about the effects of practicing Stoicism.

Over the years, the organization and the community it serves has grown considerably. New members came on while some of the original founders retired from the team. Additional projects were undertaken, and many of them came to be integral and recurring parts of our work. We consolidated the Stoicism Today blog with the Modern Stoicism website, and built up a significant base of readership. We actually do so many different things now that it might be hard to keep track of some of them – all the more reason for providing an overview here!

Modern Stoicism’s Mission

Every company has a set of purposes. These provide an ethos, a mission, a direction, and accountability.  For Modern Stoicism, there are six main purposes

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

Those are some significant tasks, and keep all of us on the team continually busy and occupied. Some of us focus more on certain of these tasks, and the things we do also often favor one of these purposes more than the others. But that is the scope of our activities and planning.

Stoic Week, SMRT, and Other Potential Courses

Each Fall, Modern Stoicism selects one week to run the free online course that is, straightforwardly enough, called “Stoic Week”. This year, Stoic Week is planned to run from Monday October 19 to Sunday Oct 25. Participants are provided with a Stoic Week Handbook (which we update and revise a bit each year), a set of guided meditations voiced by Donald Robertson, and access to the online course site. Each day has a particular theme, specific exercises, and readings to engage with.

The Stoic Week course is largely intended for newcomers to Stoicism, or for people who might have read some Stoic literature but haven’t actually tried putting it into consistent practice. I personally find that it’s also a useful exercise for those who have been studying and practicing Stoicism for some time, as a bit of a regular “tune-up”.

Donald Robertson (and this year, collaborating with him, Tim Lebon) also provides on a more occasional basis a more in-depth and longer class called Stoic Mindfulness and Resiliency Training, or SMRT for short. That course is also provided free to the public worldwide. We always announce when SMRT course is coming up in the Modern Stoicism social media and here in Stoicism Today, so that anyone interested can sign up with plenty of lead time.

We have been kicking around the idea of designing additional courses with different focuses connected to Stoicism. As soon as we’ve arrived at any decisions about those, and committed to the work required to develop, host, and run those courses, you’ll find out about here

One key aspect to the courses that we provide about applying Stoic principles and practices is gathering data that we can use to determine with some scientific rigor whether or not practicing Stoicism really does make a difference for people (it turns out that it does). We’ll say a bit more about that below.

Stoicon (and Stoicon-X) Conferences

One of the coolest things – in my view – that Modern Stoicism does is holding annual conferences, called Stoicons (Stoic + Con – or “get your Stoic On”), where those attending have the opportunities to hear a variety of established and up-and-coming speakers give talks about Stoicism. They also get to engage in more intensive hands-on workshops with some of the speakers and to meet and have conversations with others as interested in Stoicism as they are. These usually take place the weekend before Stoic Week in the Fall.

In the past, Stoicons have been hosted in London, New York, Toronto, and Athens. This year, due to COVID-19, Stoicon will be virtual, and we will have much more information coming out about that here when the schedule has been entirely worked out. Suffice it to say that we won’t be allowing a contemporary plague to prevent us from getting together as the modern Stoic community in some way this year! Once we’re able to resume meeting in person (hopefully in 2021), the plans are for Stoicon to alternate between Toronto and London locations.

For a number of years, around the time when Stoicon and Stoic Week take place, there have also been smaller, more local Stoicon-X events. Think of them as analogous to TED-X events in comparison to the big TED conferences. In the last few years, Stoicon-X events have taken place in London, New York, San Leandro, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Newton, Toronto, Moscow, Madrid, Athens, Brisbane, and Bogota.

Just as with the main Stoicon, this year Stoicon-X events will have to be virtual, but that isn’t preventing a number of the local organizations that have previously hosted them – and even some newcomers – from starting their planning for online Stoicon-X events. This will likely have the effect of making the local Stoicon-Xs a bit more international, which strikes me as a good thing for the worldwide modern Stoicism community. There has already been one so far this year, officially hosted in Ghent, and featuring Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson.

There are, it should be pointed out, some clear guidelines for what can count as – and call itself – a “Stoicon-X” event. This year, Modern Stoicism will be expecting local Stoic communities who wish to host a Stoicon-X event, and to bill themselves as such, to sign an agreement with Modern Stoicism. This will ensure that those events will be done for the public interest rather than for profit, and that certain standards will be met.

Stoicism Today – The Blog and the Books

As mentioned above, early on, Patrick Ussher – one of founding member Christopher Gill’s graduate students at the University of Exeter – started a blog called Stoicism Today. It had several different functions – publishing work on Stoicism, publicizing activities like Stoicon and Stoic Week, and providing notices about modern Stoic events or writings. Under Patrick’s editorship, it developed a solid base of readers and became one of the premiere places online to go to for quality pieces on modern Stoicism.

In 2016, Patrick stepped down as editor, and I took up that role. We also moved the blog over from the University of Exeter website to its present location. Since then, we’ve published hundreds of posts, some of them contributed by Modern Stoicism team members. The vast majority of posts, however, are contributed by guest authors, many of whom I’ve worked with to develop or improve their essays prior to publication. (If you’re interested in contributing a post, here’s something you’ll want to read).

Like the Modern Stoicism organization itself, Stoicism Today has a set of purposes that guide its activities:

  • to increase public awareness of the Modern Stoicism organization and its activities (including Stoic Week, STOICON, and the SMRT course).
  • to be an online magazine, posting articles on a wide variety of topics relating to the practice and interpretation of Stoicism, written by a wide variety of authors.
  • to publicize courses, workshops, and other opportunities for studying and practising Stoicism
  • to allow for conversation between members of the public on a wide range of topics related to Stoicism
  • to publish articles of good quality from the blog in a regular Stoicism Today series of books

Some years back, Patrick Ussher published two full edited volumes of selected essays from Stoicism Today. My colleague Leah Goldrick and I are currently at work on a new volume of selected essays from Stoicism Today, and the plans are to publish new volumes on a regular basis once we bring volume 3 out.

Modern Stoicism Videos, Podcast, and Patreon

Modern Stoicism has its own YouTube channel, where viewers can find a number of useful or interesting videos about a wide range of topics.

In particular, if you couldn’t make it to the annual Stoicons to hear the talks and workshops – or you want to go back over them at your leisure – you can do so by checking out their playlists (these even include some Stoicon-X materials as well)

We have also recently started a Modern Stoicism podcast, which is being produced by Adam Piercy. He’s started by interviewing members of the Modern Stoicism team, but will be moving on to carry out regular interviews with a number of other people active in the modern Stoic community. Here are the first several episodes:

You can expect to see a number of new podcast episodes coming out regularly over the next few months.

Modern Stoicism also has a Patreon page where people can become supporters of the organization and all of the work that we do. It’s a great way to chip in a bit each month to help us as an organization, and there’s also some perks that patrons can enjoy as well.

Partnerships and Local Organizations

One of the main organizations that Modern Stoicism, Ltd has been partnering with for several years is the Stoic Fellowship. This is a worldwide organization whose main mission is promoting and supporting local Stoic groups, meetups, and organizations. Some of the Modern Stoicism team are also quite active in leadership in the Stoic Fellowship, most notably Greg Lopez.

The Stoic Fellowship has a number of committees devoted to helping in-person (and now virtual) Stoas carry on their own work, including their own Stoic Week events and Stoicon-Xs. The Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism understandably fit together well, carrying out complementary functions.

Modern Stoicism is also partnering with the relatively newer Aurelius Foundation, established in London, and aimed at “shar[ing] Stoicism to help young people consider their journey through life and to support them in planning and living a life that contributes to the greater good.”

Another important new partner organization – which, since it was established by Donald Robertson and Adam Piercey, might be viewed as an offshoot of Modern Stoicism Ltd. – is Modern Stoicism Toronto.

There are several other local organizations founded and run by members of the Modern Stoicism team, all of which have been doing online meetings recently:

If you go to the Stoic Fellowship site, you’ll find dozens more local Stoic organizations as well.

Research On Stoicism

Quite a few of the members of the Modern Stoicism team engage in academic research and writing about various topics and issues connected with Stoicism. Major scholars on ancient philosophy have been featured as plenary speakers at Stoicon – these include Anthony Long, Julia Annas, Margaret Graver, and (remotely) Lawrence Becker. In addition, we are fortunate to have several other major scholars of ancient philosophy on the team itself, including Christopher Gill and John Sellars. All of these authors engage in substantive academic research on Stoicism, and do so in ways that also inform more popular thinking and practice.

But there’s another kind of research that is also very important to the work and mission of Modern Stoicism, and that is quantitative psychological research on the effects of actually practicing Stoicism. That is precisely why, when we run courses like Stoic Week or SMRT, we gather a variety of types of data. The hopes are to be able to demonstrate in scientific ways that Stoicism can actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. Tim Lebon carries out nearly all of the work involved in that, and if you’ve been reading Stoicism Today for any length of time, you’re familiar with the reports he has been producing for years now. Here’s something Tim himself had to say:

“We are continuing to build an evidence base for the benefits of Stoic practice through our annual Stoic weeks and  month-long Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT). These consistently show that practicing Stoicism regularly even for as short a time for a week improves well-being for most people. As mentioned above we will shortly be publishing the results from SMRT 2020 which initial analysis suggests will be very significant.We are most interested in hearing  from other researchers and potentially collaborating with them and advising them.

At present Stoic research that is ongoing includes

  • Raymond DiGiuseppe with Tim LeBon validating the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS) scale and producing subscales
  • Alexander Maclellan on Stoicism and cognitive efficiency 
  • Megan Brown on Stoicism and Empathy in medical students”

You can follow the research publications here. And if you have would like to contribute to Stoic research or have any questions, please contact Tim LeBon  by emailing him.

So this hopefully gives you some sense of the vast amount of work and activities that Modern Stoicism carries out. If you’d like to help us continue on with this work, consider becoming a monthly Patreon supporter, or make a one-time donation. All of the money donated to Modern Stoicism, Ltd goes to supporting the work that we do and the courses, posts, podcasts, and more that we provide.

Ru Paul the Drag Queen as Source of Contemporary Stoic Wisdom by Craig Moreau

Image by Damien Rosenblatt

Who comes to mind when you think of your Stoic role models? How many of them are contemporaries? How diverse are those role models? Would you say the people you draw inspiration and wisdom from is cosmopolitan? Or is it fairly uniform, and perhaps, made only of marble?

The role models we look towards to help shape our Stoic practice are incredibly influential. In How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci writes

Observing and imitating role models, then, is one powerful way to work on our own virtue. We do something like this in modern societies as well, whenever we hold up public figures to our younger generations”

Pigluicci, p. 132

The names Pigliucci does offer are those who have lived through incredible circumstances: a fighter jet being shot down over North Vietnam, imprisonment in apartheid South Africa, and practicing feminism under an oppressive and violent regime (Stockdale, Mandela, and Yousafzai, respectively).  While the individual character of these individuals shows us exemplars of virtue, I find it hard to access the violent contexts that highlighted these individuals. Similarly, I doubt I will soon be in a situation where I will need to comfortably gut myself ala-Cato.

So where should turn to for perhaps less ennobled but no-less wise examples? In a critique of contemporary celebrity culture, Pigliucci rightly observes:

We glorify actors, singers, athletes, and generic ‘celebrities,’ only to be disappointed when—predictably—it turns out that their excellence a reciting, signing, playing basketball, or racking up Facebook likes and Twitter followers has pretty much nothing to do with their moral fiber.

Pigluicci, p. 132

However, by removing all celebrity, we falsely generalize all people who are celebrities as lacking moral fiber. We need not limit whom we can look to based off their quantity of Twitter followers. Instead, when celebrities do demonstrate moral fiber, we should pay attention and consider their character before we assenting to the view that pop-culture is necessarily a vacant space for philosophy.  

While not closing off the incredibly powerful examples of our contemporary Catos in Stockdale and Youafzai, I think that we can also include in our role models those who represent Stoic living as can be found in the less-overtly violent, and arguably more accessible world of popular culture.

In agreement with Pigliucci that generic celebrity should not be glorified, or character measured by the amount of social media likes, I will however depart from the unstated belief that pop-culture is vacant when it comes to finding philosophers and Stoic wisdom.

Instead, I want to pivot away from depending on the level of the Stoic sage (Socrates) as the only one to whom we can turn for a living example. Sagehood is helpful for creating an ideal that we can strive for in our continued growth as Stoic practitioners, however if our eyes are always locked onto the image of someone possibly mythical and always unattainable, our ears and eyes may miss out on the Stoic wisdom that can be found in our non-mythic present.

I’ve selected for the focus of this essay the Stoic wisdom of Ru Paul Charles for three important reasons.

  • One, he offers a novel take on Stoic wisdom that I think can offer helpful inroads to understanding contemporary Stoic practice as its articulated by a contemporary personality
  • Two, as a person who is also queer, a person of color, and a drag queen, I believe his perspective adds much to our understanding of cosmopolitanism and Stoicism’s charge to treat everyone with dignity.
  • Third, I would like to take part in efforts to update Stoicism by [challenging] the classical canon’s naturalistic and homophobic arguments that fail to consider non-reproductive variations on sexuality as part of our shared humanity.

Additionally, as an addendum my third point, I hope to raise some flags (rainbow flags to be specific) to the possibility that contemporary Stoicism should re-center its practice on cosmopolitanism and move away from discourses of manliness and emperors as our exemplars. As I hope to show you, a Drag Queen can teach us much about what it really means to be a “man” and act with courage, and, more importantly, how to be a good person.

I. Who do you think you are? Ru Paul & Epictetus Discuss Identity

In one of Ru Paul’s more famous songs, Born Naked, the chorus intones the following lines:

Who do you think you are?
I’m telling the truth now
We’re all born naked
and the rest is drag.

Inherent in this quote is an essential understanding of our shared humanness. What drag is covered by “the rest” includes, broadly, every type of identifier that people tend to thrust upon themselves but which are ultimately constructed identities. That is, we are all humans and every label after that is drag—our nationalities, sexual, racial, and occupational identities, as well as the often implied class distinctions intertwined within those descriptors. Do these identities exist? Yes, but what Ru Paul is saying in this song is that most of our identities are socially, culturally and historically created. What we are most concretely are humans. It follows that if we all share this common, concrete humanity, the constructed identities that follow, i.e., our drag, impede us from connecting with one another and recognizing that we are all brothers and sisters in a cosmic, yet tangible level.

When I recently read Epictetus, I couldn’t help but hear Ru Paul’s song in the back of mind. Take Epictetus’s observation in Discourses, 1:29:

The time will soon be coming when the actors think that their masks, and high boots, and robes are their very selves. […] If one deprives a tragic actor of his high boots and mask, and brings him on the stage like a ghost, has the actor disappeared or does he remain? If he has his voice, he remains

Here, we see Epictetus stripping down the actor to her most essential: the human voice. When read alongside Ru Paul, we can see how Epictetus’s lesson of the actor can be read simultaneously as metaphor, in addition to its more obvious observations on materialism. In other words, our identities are not are material appearances (boots and robes) nor are our identities the figurative masks we wear; who we really are is most visible in our voice—what we say and don’t say—as our actions do really speak volumes.

Ru Paul, who might as well be responding to Epictetus, mentions in a YouTube video

I think there are really just two types of people on the planet: people who understand that this is a play we’re doing, and that the characters we play are really not real; and then there are people who think that the characters that they play, or what it says on their driver’s license, is who they are—which we know, is not really true.

Where Ru Paul leaves off, and where Epictetus continues, is that we spend our time not building identities but in doing good; he tells us to “take off your senatorial robe, dress in rags, and step forward” and do whatever we are doing the best that we can (1:29, 45).

What all of this discussion on clothes, appearances, material and immaterial presentation offers practicing Stoics is an inroad to embracing our cosmopolitism. If we recognize that our outward material appearance, even “the name on our drivers license” is not who we are, it can help us realize the same in others. In sum: just as our materials and names do not make us who we are, the names and materials (or lack of) do not make our neighbors who they are. If we can recognize the truth that we are all common relative to each other, that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag, we can avoid assenting to our judgments about others, and in doing so, be one step closer towards embracing each other as brothers and sisters.  

II. Ru Paul, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero Walk Into a Bar: On True Wealth

In her 2014 book, Workin’ it!, Ru Paul observes:

true wealth is having the knowledge to maneuver and navigate the mental obstacles that inhibit your ability to soar.

Within these words there are several elements that connect to Stoic practice, specifically the key virtue of wisdom. In Ru’s definition, for us to acquire wealth we must achieve what is commonly called praxis: the ways in which theory is realized through actions. Knowledge functions as theory but is realized through our “maneuvers” and “navigation.” The actions we perform, maneuvering and navigating through life, help us overcome our obstacles so that we may soar as intended.

An immediate connection from Ru Paul’s comment on wealth as knowing what to do with obstacles calls forth Marcus Aurelius’s oft-quoted “an obstacle on its path helps it on its way” (5:20). However, just prior to this famous meditation, the Emperor Marcus observes of those obstacles:

these may hinder one or other of my actions, but they are not hindrances to my impulses or my disposition, because I have the power to act with reservation and turn circumstances to my own advantage.

Meditations, 5:20

What Marcus Aurelius describes is Ru Paul’s notion of wealth; wisdom is demonstrated as one recognizes the knowledge that they have the agency to act despite mental and physical barriers that appear to obstruct us on our way. What Ru Paul adds to our understanding of the obstacle is the way mentality is that its cultivation offers us the only true sense wealth we will ever know. In short, true wealth is practicing Stoic wisdom.

True wealth is also addressed in Cicero’s Paradoxa Stoicorum, notably paradox six, titled “The Wise Man Alone Is Rich.” When considering not how to define wealth, but how to evaluate one’s richness, Cicero compels us to recognize that “It is your own mind, and not the talk of others, nor your possessions, that must pronounce you to be rich […]” (Paradox VI).

Here we see the perspectives brought forth thus far (that wealth is the praxis of our knowledge and action to navigate our obstacles) as a type of richness that equates to wisdom. The wise person uses her agency to declare herself as rich independent of her possessions or the words of others. She is rich according to her own mind. From that mind we exercise our knowledge in relation to obstacles, whether they be maneuvered around, navigated through, or turned into an advantage.

These three authors, one a proclaimed Stoic, one a quasi-Stoic, and one a Drag Queen, all offer perspectives on the greatest immaterial wealth we have: our rational minds, aka, our “ruling center.” Our ration can help us remain level-headed, can help us recognize our agency, and ultimately can help us soar. It is these qualities that make us truly wealthy and guide us in the pursuit of wisdom.

III. Making Room for Queerness: An Update to Contemporary Stoicism

I have placed Ru Paul in conversation with three key writers from the Roman Stoa, in part because of my familiarity with Classical Rome over Greece, in an attempt to call attention to some of our canonical figures’ more problematic notions of cosmopolitanism. Namely, the fact that the ancients had a different notion of sexuality compared to how we think of it, and tended to view sex, and sexual orientation, in terms of acts that were “manly” and those that were not.

What I want to avoid is discussing Stoic sex (that is perhaps another essay) and instead raise some important issues about context; just as slavery in the canon is present and problematic, so is Stoicism’s sometimes subtle, often overt, fear of queerness present and problematic. When we glorify the Romans, Emperor Marcus Aurelias in particular, we tend to be forgiving of his writings as emblematic of his socio-cultural historic context. However, we should read Marcus and others with their context as we examine our own. If we do not return to what we are forgiving, we fail to update the philosophy for our contemporary moment and perhaps miss out on opportunities to practice courage by confronting the problems inherent in our own socio-cultural historic moment. What we ought to privilege is the caretaking of the philosophy, not the memories of the individuals whom we find ourselves quoting.

The words “no results found” is a frequent finding on Stoic blogs when I search for “gay,” “queer” or “LGBT”. In the searches I have done, gay representations are usually in reference to therapeutic connections (e.g., Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)), somewhat reinforcing archaic arguments that, for gay people, our queerness is something to be medicalized and treated as opposed to accepted as part of the natural human condition. However, in an online symposium published out here in Stoicism Today, focused on “Stoicism and Women”, Andi Sciacca wisely answers if Stoicism can hold value for women by saying that it “Holds value for people—and women are people.” I would say the same applies to us queer folk.

In that spirit, I have deliberately placed a drag queen in conversation with classical Stoic philosophers for the purpose of making some of you potentially uncomfortable. Ideally, you can recognize that your discomfort is somewhat intertwined with your own cultural-socio historically based aversion to same-sex desire. (Likewise, you ought to then recognize that such a fear is therefore not rationally based…) We can understand Stoic philosophy when we include in our cosmopolis  our queer brothers and sisters—and not as a secondary class of others—but as equals and family with perspectives that can sharpen our world-view. And yes, should the question ever be asked while walking under the modern Stoa, I believe with Sciacca that Stoicism can help people, and would add that it can help people who also happen to be queer as they navigate the complexities of queer life and flourish in that life.

To appreciate the justice we claim to seek, we must reckon with the heteronormative and downright offensive language in our prided classical texts. For example, Marcus Aurelias often bemoans “catamites,” aka, those who have (mostly receptive) anal sex, as unnatural beasts (Book 4, among others). Likewise, Epictetus often takes similar naturalist arguments to reinforce the notion that procreation (and thus heteronormativity) is ideal, and in doing so, does not recognize that same-sex desire also falls under the natural order, as it has always been a part of the human condition in the same way the human condition is composed of a variety of skin tones and eye colors.

As a person who identifies as gay and practices Stoicism, I have to wrestle with the fact that on one hand, I value the wisdom offered by Stoicism while on the other hand I often have to read those bits of wisdom against the background of a masculine, misogynist antique culture. As we continue to study and practice Stoicism in our current moment, I hope that we do not evangelize the past as an ideal, but read with critical minds the words of our teachers and show courage when we challenge some of the taken-for-granted wisdom in what they teach. If drag queens can teach us anything, it is that what’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.

List of Sources

Aurelius, M. (2011). Meditations. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.

Cicero, M. T. (2014). Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Vol. 23). Delphi Classics.

Epictetus (2014). Discourses, fragments, handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford University Press.

Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a stoic: Using ancient philosophy to live a modern life. Hachette UK.

RuPaul. (2014). Workin’It!: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style. HarperCollins e-Books.

RuPaul’s Let The Music Play—Born Naked Featuring Clairy Browne. (2014, October 14).

Craig Moreau is a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University where he studies language and innovation. His non-academic work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Electric Literature, and Lambda Literary, among others. You can view his publications at

Marcus Aurelius, The Stormlight Archive, and Navigating Coronavirus by Frank Ó’hÁinle

Just as a quick notice to people who have not yet read the Stormlight Archive epic fantasy series: This post will not contain any spoilers to the series and consists primarily of a discussion of the general motivations and themes from the books. On a further note, I am extremely jealous of you all for getting the opportunity to read Sanderson’s magnum opus for the first time.

The times we now live in are unprecedented in the modern age, what is being asked of us is also something very few of us could have imagined at the beginning of the year, as the wistful tune of Auld Lang Syne faded into a chorus of cheering and celebrations on New Years Eve. In the last week I finished my undergraduate degree, an effort which has brought all of the stress, anxiety, delirious joy and tough periods of acclimatization to the man I would like to think I have started to become through my actions, thoughts and words.

In the week that has passed without this external pressure to constantly tackle assignments and complete exams in less than ideal circumstances, I have been able to examine the situation which has now engulfed the entirety of the planet. As I now possess the requisite time to return to my passion for writing, I would like to share with you all my thoughts on the pandemic in a stoic context, along with giving you all one out-of-left-field book recommendation in the process.

The Way of Kings was written by Brandon Sanderson and published to universal acclaim in 2010, long before we had ever imagined our modern world as being as fragile as it is now proving to be. This gargantuan piece of literature truly redefines the meaning of epic fantasy in terms of scale and also, in my eyes at least, how impactful a philosophy, even if it may be fictional, can be if encountered at the right time in a person’s life. You may rightfully be questioning why I am mentioning this work of fiction in a post on Stoicism, but in the days since I finished my legal studies I have returned to this work and its sequels and found a number of parallels with the ethos it provides and Stoicism with one character in particular – Dalinar Kholin – drawing further comparisons with Marcus Aurelius in my eyes. To avoid spoilers, I will however keep my inspection of the source work as basic as possible but would highly recommend The Way of Kings and the works of Sanderson to just about anyone.

Just like our own world in the present moment, the world of Roshar is in a less than desirable position and at times seems to be on the verge of collapse, yet as has been shown by our ability to come together in times of crisis, the unwillingness of people to fall into despair remains. In this fictional work an organisation known as the Knights Radiant help keep the world in question from falling into darkness. This group has a few mantras which they live by, they are also as varied as the members of the organisation itself. The most important words they are expected to live by however are as follows, “Life beforeDeath, Strength before Weakness, Journey before Destination.”

Examining the meaning behind these words, it is further elaborated that even the act of simply living, that act of persistence despite all else and the constant difficulty and despair which may pervade our lives in times such as these, is an act which should be commended. This is mirrored in our own world by Lucius Annaeus Seneca who allowed that, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” Yes, times remain uncertain and no end is in sight at present, yet while we are here, we must live.

We live for those on the frontlines who are facing a pandemic which they were in no way prepared for prior to those heady early days of 2020. We live for those we have lost, and we live for those we may yet lose. While we are here and while we can we live because with every life comes a chance to do good, even in isolation we can make this world a better one through our thoughts and actions, particularly in the simple act of staying at home and giving our immensely heroic frontline workers a fighting chance. “Life before Death” allows that while living is not always easy it remains our duty to live well while we can and do what we ought to while we’re here, not only for those we care for but also for those unknown to us who require the best version of ourselves at any given moment.

With their mantra of “Strength before Weakness,” the Radiants were always reminded that all of us are weak at some stage in our lives, but while we are still standing and while we have the opportunity we should lend a hand to the fallen. Muhammad Ali once allowed that, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” The coronavirus has left many of us on our knees; emotionally and physically people are struggling across the globe. I can imagine that some of you now reading this may be in a similar position even.

Yet while we are still standing and while we can, we should lend a figurative, and definitively not a physical hand, to those we can. Even the smallest of acts can make a huge difference; helping with an elderly neighbour’s groceries, checking in on those who may be struggling or in my case setting up a virtual running club to help my friends through their exams. While our sacrifices may seem minimal in the grand scheme of things, when compared to healthcare workers and others on the frontline, it is alright to feel overwhelmed.

There is no shame in feeling weak at a time like this, there can be no strength without weakness and in accepting the fact that we are all weak at some point in our lives and reaching out to another for help or encouragement, is one of the truest forms of resilience any of us are truly capable of. Just as Marcus Aurelius noted in the Meditations, “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

“Journey before Destination.” While a world without the impacts of Covid-19 may seem to have occurred in another millennium, it is vital to remember that this is part of our journey, and at present a challenge we all must face. One of the primary Stoic teachings relates to amor fati or a love of one’s fate, which is at present of the utmost importance to us all. The several-month-long period we have been forced to endure without the presence of our loved ones, without the capability to embrace or even contact those we care for and countless other sacrifices we have all been forced to make, remains only a small part of our journey in the greater context of our lives.

There are always dark moments in our lives, and while it may remain a cliché to state that the night is darkest before the dawn, I have found to date that we cannot truly enjoy the light without the presence of darkness. No life is truly bereft of such trying and at certain points heart-breaking times, but at the same point no life is ever truly complete without it either. Right now we must accept that the journey is the more important aspect, the destination that final goal which at present for one of the few times in human history is a shared one of an end of this pandemic, is of secondary importance. Who we are and who we become as a result of the journey we embark upon is what counts, as my great mentor Marcus Aurelius once stated, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

With the mention of the long deceased yet ever-present Roman Emperor, I would like to neatly segue into a brief discussion of the true Stoic in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar Kholin. While the two characters are far from mirror images of each other, they are two men I have come to admire greatly, despite the fact that one of them is a fictional character. When we are introduced to Dalinar he is a man struggling with the virtues he has imposed upon himself at a time of unprecedented change in his own country and world as a whole. He has been pushed into a position he never actually wished to attain, but ensures that while he can he will do his utmost in the role for the good of his people. Having accepted that there is no one else as capable as himself in the position and to shirk this responsibility would lead to the suffering of many others. With this acceptance of responsibility comes consequences of which Dalinar is to pay dearly, but he would never have been capable of making any other decision and as such accepts this as part of the journey he has deigned to undertake.

If this sounds familiar to anyone who has taken an active interest in Stoicism, and in particular the life of Marcus Aurelius, it is because the two men shared a sense of duty and an unwillingness to take the darker of two paths even when virtue was not convenient to them. Marcus was a bookish, philosophically inclined young man who would have much preferred to have been allowed to become a scholar and a philosopher. However, he was given the unfortunate burden of becoming Emperor of Rome. A position he had never desired nor actively sought out, but one which he could not turn away from, as to do so would cause the lives of all Roman citizens to be lessened as a result.

For 19 long years the philosopher held the Empire together despite barbarian invasions, plagues, civil wars, and the full scope of human ineptitude being on display for the entirety of his reign. All those who associated with the Emperor did so to curry favour or because they desired something. All the while Marcus ensured that he would do the right thing and pushed such desires to the back of his mind comparing himself to a watchman who had been left on guard while the rest of the Empire slept. How alone must he have felt? How unbearable must this situation have been for a man who wished to be left alone with his books? Yet he did what was required of him regardless of circumstance, regardless of desire, unwilling to let the lives of others be lessened due to an unwillingness to do what he must on his part.

Dalinar too, like Marcus, felt alone during his journey, he was constantly ridiculed by others as being insane or in clinging to a philosophy which his peers now deemed irrelevant as they clung to material items in order to show off their status and privilege. Yet Dalinar accepted that in the end we will all die, we will all face whatever has to be met at the ends of our lives and our achievements like those of so many others who lived before us will shrink into obscurity and seem so small come the end of our days. Rather it is the way we live day in and day out which will be most important when our final days approach and our time here comes to a close. The choices we make when no one is watching, the way in which we treat others and particularly the responsibility we take for what we have done and what we must do in our darkest hours. A way of living of the utmost importance in our current set of circumstances.

We may be ridiculed and deemed ridiculous particularly at present, when so many claim this pandemic’s severity is being overexaggerated despite the evidence that people are dying and suffering across our world. Yet when we know what is the right course of action, the action which is required of us in that given moment, we know that what we are doing is right and will not let our emotions, whether they be of frustration or embarrassment to dictate what we do and who we are.

Self-control is a Stoic’s strength. Not every emotion has to be acted upon, but it can be accepted and turned to something more productive than an outburst. In becoming who we wish to be we may be deemed a hypocrite, particularly at present when some of us may have underestimated the impact and severity of the virus, before making beneficial changes to our actions and decision making. Yet in the end as Dalinar noted about himself throughout the course of Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, “Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.” Right now, many of us feel like hypocrites due to our early dismissal of the pandemic, but it is a part of the journey we all must accept right now for the benefit of others.

What Dalinar and Marcus both held in common is that despite how long and dark the road may seem, the most important thing we can do is to take responsibility for who we are, the actions and missteps included. While constantly moving forward towards being that better person who actively makes this world a little better just by coming through this way. In this pursuit of betterment and in a time when it seems so easy to plateau and stagnate in our development, there is no harm in acknowledging that things will be difficult but our next step is the most important and our capacity to be a good person remains, regardless of circumstance.

Just to finish I would like to quickly thank Brandon Sanderson for his wonderful work which encapsulates so much of what makes the fantasy genre wonderful in my eyes, while simultaneously providing an example of the power of Stoicism to drive a person to be better even in the most trying of circumstances. It is a series which I would recommend to anyone who’s interest has been piqued by my superficial analysis of some of its core themes and my favourite fictional character.

Right now in our own world however, we are all a little scared, we face a level of uncertainty and doubt which cannot be so easily allayed as reading this article and deciding that it has all become so much easier to face. This virus may continue into the end of the year, separating families and loved ones, taking the lives of the most vulnerable of our society and putting an almost unbearable pressure on our frontline workers all across the globe. Yet there remains little we can do to outrightly take on the virus, this is an enemy of which few living have any relatable example in their own lives.

We cannot storm the beaches of Normandy as some of our ancestors were asked to do, we cannot march for freedom against the unfair laws of biased administrations as some of those who have now passed once accepted as their responsibility. Right now all any of us can do is to stay at home, to continue to follow the guidelines set out by our governments and above all else to be kind to one another in these trying times, this is all we have control of right here and now. Things may seem dark and we may be becoming fed up with our current lot, but courage remains stronger than fear and in this very moment through our own humanity and capacity to be better we can hold back the tide, until this virus can finally be vanquished.

Feel free to contact me if you would like a further discussion of any of the points I have raised within this piece or even need a helping hand through difficult times.

Ní néart go cur lé chéile.

Frank Ó’hÁinle has recently completed his undergraduate degree in Law and History at the University of Limerick and is currently preparing to sit his Fe-1 exams (Irish equivalent of the Bar). He remains an aspiring author despite the intense exam workload and hopes to produce something more substantial in the future, at present however his focus is firmly placed upon his fledgling legal career. You can contact him with any queries on his piece or stoicism more generally.

Human Nature and Stoic Development by Brittany Polat

As practicing Stoics, the most pressing question for many of us is how to become good people and live satisfying, meaningful lives. But the path to Stoic enlightenment is not always clear. How do we get from who we are today to who we want to be? How do we become happy and fulfilled? And how is becoming virtuous going to help us with that anyway? In this essay I’d like to build on ancient Stoic ideas about human nature and development (oikeiosis), linking Stoic development to a conception of oneness that I believe will help us live flourishing lives.[i]

The ancient Stoics believed that nature—our human nature and the world we live in—has provided us with what we need to reach our potential as excellent people.[ii] For one thing, we instinctually act in ways that promote our own well-being. As young children our instinct is to seek things that keep us alive and give us comfort: food and the warmth and security of a loving caregiver.

But as we grow, our awareness of ourselves changes. We seek out new opportunities, and we have a strong desire to learn, understand, and make sense of the world. We develop our own identities as people, and we become more consciously aware of what is expected of us and who we want to be. We eventually learn that our well-being depends not on material comforts but on how well we fulfill our role as a mature human.[iii] Some people are confused about the role of a fully mature person; they might think the goal is to become rich or powerful or popular. But Stoics know the only way to find long-lasting inner peace and happiness is to live in agreement with nature, which includes living in agreement with our human nature (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1).

And what might that nature be? Human nature is complex and multi-faceted, but one of our defining features is our extreme sociability. We always live in groups, and the well-being of the individual depends on the well-being of the group. Our families, communities, cities, and nations in most cases existed long before we were born, and many of them will exist long after we are gone.[iv] We are primed and programmed to live with, cooperate with, and take care of others. Not only that, but our very survival as a species depends on are instinctual care for our young. Humans have by far the longest childhood, and require intensive care for the longest time, of any species that we know of. Our instincts as adults prompt us to love and care for our young, and our instincts as children predispose us from a very young age to cooperate with and care for others.[v] We are the social species par excellence.

If we want to reach our potential as humans—thereby becoming happy and fulfilled—we must become excellent at doing what humans do best: living with other people and using our advanced cognitive capacities (and uniquely human self-awareness) to understand the nature of things. The ancient Stoics called this natural progression toward virtue “oikeiosis“. Oikeiosis literally means something like familiarization, affiliation, or appropriation. It is the process by which you become familiar with your true nature. Your nature as a young child dictated that you depended on adults for survival; your nature as a maturing young person dictated that you started to become independent, acquire responsibility, and develop a mature awareness of yourself and the world. When you become familiar with your nature as a rational and social adult, you will devote yourself to fulfilling that nature, i.e., becoming virtuous. You will grow into the person you are meant to be.

Becoming familiar with our true nature—you might call it fully developing our humanity—requires understanding who we really are in relation to other people. The ancient Stoics spoke of our relationship to others as a part-to-whole relationship: we are individual parts of the same body, we are branches on the same tree, or we are all citizens of the same city.[vi] This communal attitude is foundational to developing an accurate understanding of life and thereby becoming virtuous. If you persist in believing that your own good is separate from the good of other people, you can’t really become virtuous because you hold a very mistaken view of things.

But once you understand that your own good is identical to the good of the whole, your perspective (and therefore your opinions, motivations, desires, aversions, and actions) completely shifts. You realize that what benefits those around you also benefits you because you are inextricably linked in human companionship (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.22, 15-19; Seneca, Letters on Ethics, 48.2).

This shift in perspective, from self as isolated entity to self as part of the whole, is social oikeiosis. It requires not just a simple recognition that we are all inextricably linked but a change in our identity or sense of self. It’s quite easy to admit our interdependencies on a superficial level without allowing it to change our attitude or behavior. But we will only properly understand our nature and our role in life when we re-draw the boundaries of “who I am” to include other people.[vii]

Another way of putting it is that we are developing a sense of oneness with the people around us. Virtue ethicist and Asian philosophy scholar Philip J. Ivanhoe has identified oneness as a “relational view about the nature of the self” that achieves “a more expansive conception of the self, a self that is seen as intimately connected with other people, creatures, and things in ways that typically conduce to the greater advantage, well-being, and happiness of all concerned” (Ivanhoe, p. 3).

It seems to me that this expansive conception of the self describes the endpoint of social oikeiosis in Stoicism. Consider one of the most famous ancient explications of social oikeiosis, the concentric circles of Hierocles. His description seems to be a sort of exercise for how we might come to see our individual selves as one part of a larger whole: we first identify with our close family members, then our extended family, then friends and neighbors, then fellow citizens. We expand our notion of self from our narrow personal interests to comprehend everyone around us, eventually including everyone in the world. I think the idea here is to extend our understanding of ourselves as one part of the greater whole, which means expanding our sense of self.

As Ivanhoe points out, oneness has great value to contemporary ethics: it is the basis of several current philosophies of environmental ethics, and some moral psychologists see it as the motivation for altruism (in contrast to the dominant empathy-altruism approach).[viii] I think both of these are relevant for modern Stoics. For me personally, thinking about altruism in terms of oneness rather than empathy addresses some of the tensions at the heart of social oikeiosis.

This approach suggests that we help other people not because we empathize with their plight but because we feel a sense of oneness with them. As Stoics, we do not actively empathize with others about perceived misfortunes because we have a different idea of what misfortune is. Yet we still care and feel affection for them. Our thoughts and actions are motivated not by emotional reactions but by our rational understanding that we are actually parts of the same whole, which leads to a different kind of altruism.[ix]

One further reason for linking Stoic social oikeiosis to the oneness hypothesis is the close association oneness has with “metaphors of natural organic unity, for example about how a healthy person is connected to the various parts of her own well-functioning body” (Ivanhoe, p. 2). These metaphors are a well-known feature of Stoicism. Consider Marcus Aurelius’ memorable comparison of people acting against the common good to limbs severed from a body:

If you have ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a head which has been cut off, lying some distance away from the rest of the body, you will have some idea of what a person makes of himself, as far as he can, when he is unwilling to consent to what comes to pass and cuts himself off from others or when he does something that is against the common interest. By so acting you have, as it were, cast yourself loose from the natural unity; for you were born to be a part of it, and you have cut yourself off. (Meditations, 8.34)

Neo-Confucians,[x] whose ideas inspired Ivanhoe’s oneness hypothesis, express their ideas about oneness in similar terms. For neo-Confucians as well as Stoics, we are so connected and interdependent with the people around us that we form, metaphorically, one body. Here is the neo-Confucian philosopher Cheng Hao explaining why the term “unfeeling” is used to describe both numb body parts and selfish people:

Medical books describe paralysis in the hands or feet as being ‘numb or unfeeling’. This is a perfect way to describe the condition. People with feeling (i.e., benevolent people) regard heaven, earth, and the myriad things as one body; there is nothing that is not a part of themselves. Since they regard all things as themselves, is there anywhere their concern will fail to reach? If things are not part of oneself, naturally they will have no influence upon one. This is like hands or feet being unfeeling. (Cheng Hao, cited in Ivanhoe, pp. 47-48)

Stoicism is certainly not identical to Confucianism, even if both philosophies share a similar outlook on nature, virtue, and development. But I do find it very instructive to think about where the Confucians headed with their corporal metaphors, and where we as modern Stoics might end up. Although they “saw a deep identity between themselves and the world” (Ivanhoe, p. 146),

Neo-Confucians don’t lose the self in or wholly merge the self with the world; they maintain the hierarchy of concern characteristic of Confucians in every age…So while we are one with every aspect of the universe, there is a hierarchy of concern, a core and periphery to the universal self, modeled on the natural hierarchy among the parts of our physical bodies. (Ivanhoe, pp. 49, 50)

The ancient Confucians were challenged by a rival philosophical school, the Mohists—and neo-Confucians were challenged by Buddhist thought—to clarify and defend their position on the privilege of family relationships. While Mohists argued for complete impartiality toward all people, Confucians traditionally maintained that we owe our family members and close associates more than we owe to more distant associates or strangers. Likewise, strict forms of Buddhism require giving up all attachments, including to family and friends (Ivanhoe, p. 47), but:

While several neo-Confucians argued that we are one body with heaven, earth, and the myriad things, they were eager to emphasize that we care to different degrees and in different ways for the various parts of our bodies. While one’s heart, lungs, toes, skin, fingernails, and hair all are equally parts of the unity that is one’s body and one cares for them all, one does not care for them equally or in the same way. (Ivanhoe, p. 47)

While oneness does require us to expand our sense of self to care for everyone in the world, that does not mean we must do for strangers exactly as we would do for our parents or children. Perhaps there are a few saints and Cynics in the world who are able to give up all their social attachments and truly live for all of humanity. But this is not an attainable or desirable goal for most people. For most of us, the goal of social oikeiosis is not impartiality but rather “an expanded sense of self that embraces the other and brings it, to varying degrees, within one’s conception of oneself” (Ivanhoe, p. 71).

It’s a daunting task, but the ancient Stoics seemed to believe we are equipped for it by nature. People often get distracted from their true nature by “the persuasiveness of things” and “the teaching of their associates,” according to Chrysippus.[xi] Unfortunately, we have even more of those distractions today than ever before. But for better or worse, human nature hasn’t changed in the past 2,000 years, and I think we are still naturally equipped to grow toward virtue. Through observation, study, reflection, attention, and constant practice, we can learn to see the world (and our place in it) clearly and accurately. And by pushing ourselves to align our well-being with the well-being of all other humans, we can develop an expansive sense of self that (eventually) encompasses everyone. In so doing, we will become familiarized to other people and to our own nature, eventually resulting in the long-lasting happiness of eudaimonia. As Ivanhoe (p. 102) puts it:

When one develops one’s natural needs, desires, inclinations, and capacities in ways that harmonize and unify one’s inner psychological states and fits these into a grand natural order that facilitates successful action in the world, and when one reaches the point where one regularly and spontaneously achieves these dual aims, one feels that one is one’s element, has found one’s home, and is performing one’s proper role in the world. Such action generates a special feeling of joy or happiness not only for those who behave this way but also for those who observe such behavior.

[i] I am not a scholar of ancient Stoicism, and I am not trying to reconstruct the ancient Stoic system. My goal is to build on what the ancients have left us to construct a system that works for many of us today.

[ii] The purpose of this essay is not to discount or argue about ancient Stoic conceptions of the divine. For those interested in the relationship between oikeiosis and ancient Stoic theology, here is A.A. Long in Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, 2002, Oxford University Press, p. 182: “The official starting point of early Stoic ethics—the concept from which the school’s account of life in accordance with nature began—was ‘appropriation’ (oikeiôsis): that is to say, the instincts for self-preservation and for sociability that the school’s founders regarded as basic to every normal person’s innate motivations, and as empirically verifiable. The providential plan of God or Nature is emphatically at work in oikeiôsis, but you do not need to know that in order to oikeiôsis plausible as a basic datum of human nature; for an agnostic would be hard pressed to dispute the fact that human beings, like other animals, are endowed with instincts of the kind that Stoics attribute to them. Theology mainly enters traditional Stoicism not as the beginning or even as a part of ethics but rather as the culmination of physics—the study of nature.”

[iii] Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[iv] Philip J. Ivanhoe, Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All Connected, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 52.

[v] For a very interesting theory on how our social nature shapes our other advanced cognitive abilities (language, abstract mental representations, cooperative planning, etc.), I highly recommend Michael Tomasello’s Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, Harvard University Press, 2019.

[vi] Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard University Press, 2001; Gretchen Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 53.

[vii] Just to be clear, this recognition of unity, or the process of social oikeiosis more generally, does not change a Stoic’s view of what is ‘up to me’ and what is ‘not up to me.’ Even a person’s own body is considered external and outside the sphere of choice, and other people remain firmly in this category. Social oikeiosis does not remove a person’s autonomy or moral responsibility.

[viii] The empathy-altruism approach suggests that people are motivated to act kindly toward others based on feelings of empathy for the other person’s condition.

[ix] See Ivanhoe, pp. 70 and 89-93, for more on oneness and altruism.

[x] Neo-Confucianism was a flowering of Confucian thought in China from around the 11th through 16th centuries.

[xi] Margaret Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 154-158.

Brittany Polat is the author of the recent book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged. You can follow her blog at Apparent Stoic or on Twitter @brittanypolat.

Justus Lipsius, Godfather of Christian Neostoicism by Max Longley

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Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can be considered the founder of Renaissance and early modern Neostoicism (or Neo-Stoicism). Not only did he give the fullest account of ancient Stoicism which had been given since the classical age, he inspired a generation of readers and students with the philosophy. He sought to reconcile the teachings of the pagan Stoics with Christianity. Like his hero and model Seneca, Lipsius came in for his share of criticism for not living up to his own Stoic ideals.

Justus Lipsius (his name is a Latinization of his Dutch name, Josse Lips) was born in 1547 in Overijse in modern Belgium. He studied in Cologne with the Jesuits, but his parents withdrew him and he went to the University of Louvain (Leuven) near his birthplace. He studied the Latin classics and became a well-respected philologist through Latin works published at a young age.

Spanish forces under the infamous Duke of Alba were wreaking havoc in the area, and Lipsius decided it was time to pack his bags. During a couple of unsettled years he came back to Louvain to obtain a degree in law and promptly left again. After an unsatisfying stint with the Catholic Emperor in Vienna, he ended up in Jena, Germany. There, for a couple of years, Lipsius taught at the university in that Lutheran city. On certain formal occasions he gave public addresses for the university in which he praised the Lutherans and denounced the Catholics. His main focus, though, was on his scholarship. He sparked jealousy among faculty colleagues, but – in a pattern which would follow throughout his career – he attracted students who became attached to him and his ideas. This was the beginning of a network of former students, many of whom became influential, with whom he corresponded and who spread his ideas. Lipsius married at this time but never had children – his paternal solicitude was spent on his students.

During a sojourn in Cologne (where he met his wife), Lipsius published a new edition of Tacitus, the Roman historian. The latter publication helped cement his reputation in the international “republic of letters” – the community of humanist scholars throughout Europe who shared a common devotion to classical learning which – they hoped – transcended religious and national barriers.

Lipsius made another move in 1578, this time to a new University at Leiden, in Holland. Holland was one of the rebellious Dutch provinces fighting to be free of Spain, and the University of Leiden was founded amid the good wishes of the rebels. Not only was Lipsius appointed to a professorship, he served several terms as rector, indicating how valuable an acquisition the renowned scholar was to university just finding its feet in a beleaguered republic.

Shortly after he was established in Leiden, he became seriously ill, and composed a prayer asking God to strengthen him as he faced possible death. He recovered and published a book on the subject of constancy – this time constancy in the face of war and turmoil, not personal ills. The book, De Constantia (Concerning Constancy), sold quite well. Inspired by the ideals of the Stoic authors Lipsius had studied, this small Latin book defended a Christian humanist form of the Stoic ideal.

“I have always set my sails wholly toward the one haven of a tranquil mind,” wrote Lipsius (Constancy, 13). He boasted that he was the first to write about “consolation in public disasters” (Constancy, 13). Lipsius also added what might seem a disclaimer – he was writing this book for himself, for his own “well-being.” The implication seems to be that while Lipsius knows the value of constancy, he hasn’t yet been able to obtain it and needs to urge it upon himself (Constancy, xix-xx, 13).

De Constantia is in the form of a dialogue. The good lines are given to an older scholar, Charles Langius of Liège, whose fictional persona imparts wisdom to the Lipsius character. Lipsius puts himself in the book as a young man fearful for the fate of his beloved Netherlands and seeking consolation in his distress.

 The Langius character gives Stoic advice to the young man – “you must not flee your country, Lipsius, but your emotions.” (Constancy, 19) “Constancy I here designate an upright and unmoved vigor of mind that is neither uplifted nor cast down by outward or chance occurrences.” (Constancy, 27, 29, emphasis in original)

Langius argues that Lipsius is not motivated by a pure idealistic concern for the fate of his country, but by a more specific concern about the personal consequences of the war in the Netherlands. If his is a truly disinterested humanitarianism, why isn’t Lipsius also concerned about wars in other, more remote countries? In fact Lipsius should consider his citizenship to be in “the entire world” (Constancy, 43), in good Stoic cosmopolitan fashion. Of course Lipsius should love his particular country – die for it if necessary – but he shouldn’t have a passionate attachment and misname it patriotism, giving his country the reverence owed to God and his parents. Indeed, Heaven is man’s “true ancestral country” (Constancy, 55).

Langius warns Lipsius not to be angry over public disasters, which are “dispatched and licensed by God.” Who is Lipsius – “[a] man, a shadow, dust” – to question God? (Constancy, 57, 63). God’s decrees will be carried out even against men who dare to resist them. Do not expect to be exempt from worldly trouble – mortality is characteristic of the whole created world. Even heavenly bodies can perish. Astronomers had recently found a supernova in the Cassiopeia constellation, which contradicted the previously-received wisdom about the permanence and stability of the heavens (Constancy, 67, 69). Change and death was everywhere in creation – even the heavens could not escape. One must meet this reality with firmness of mind. (Seneca, echoing earlier astronomical theories, claimed that “[t]he higher part of the universe” was “free from all disorder,” just like men’s minds should be (Seneca, “Anger,” 23)).

The universe is governed by “a firm and determined necessity of events” – said De Constantia – eternally foreknown by God (Constancy, 75). The “determined necessity” is Fate. Here, though, Lipsius was navigating difficult philosophical and theological waters. There was a widespread impression that Stoics taught the doctrine – heretical to Christians – that God was Himself bound by the same Fate which governed the universe (indeed, that God was in the universe). Stepping carefully through this minefield, Lipsius cited two false interpretations of fate – Astrological and Violent – and the true version of fate, which he simply called True Fate.

Astrological fate – man’s life being governed by the stars – was easily dismissed. Violent Fate was equally wrong – it was the blasphemous idea of a Fate so powerful that it controlled God himself as well as the voluntary choices of human beings. Some Stoic writings seemed to teach this unacceptable version of fate, while other Stoic writings taught “sounder” doctrines and did not run into the extremes of Violent Fate. Whatever his actual interpretation of Stoic ideas, Lipsius wanted to distance himself from the stereotypes which connected Stoicism to Violent Fate. Stoics had sought to defend “the majesty and Providence of God,” and if some of them had wandered into error, it was from their laudable zeal to free mankind from the vicissitudes of Fortune (Constancy, 79, 81, 83).

Then Lipsius came to True Fate, in its proper Stoic (and Neostoic) conception. True Fate does not bind God; it comes from God. It is “the eternal decree of Providence, which can no more be taken away from things than Providence itself.” God creates Fate while still leaving room for human free will: “He saw; He did not compel. He knew; he did not determine. He predicted; he did not prescribe.” Yet our free will comes in strict limits – “So it is in this fatal bark [ship] that bears us all along: our wills are permitted to run one way or another, not to turn the ship from its course or stop it.” (Constancy, 91, 93)

 Accepting Fate, not fighting against it, was key to constancy and tranquility. “There is no other escape from Necessity than to will whatever it compels” (Constancy, 97). But that is no excuse for fatalism – you should still help your country in its extremity – it might do good or might not, but the result is beyond one’s control.

Another thing which helps us to constancy is to examine the nature of what we believe to be evils. Events which seem on the surface to be the wrath of an angry God may instead be intended by God as “medications.” God can inflict such seeming evils directly – as with earthquakes and plagues – or he can make use of human instruments who believe they are doing evil but unknowingly work good ends – as with wars and oppression. Whether direct or indirect, these apparent evils are intended for good.

How can seeming evils be for our good? For one thing, God may be acting like a tough gym coach (a good Stoic metaphor) to “train” people in “endurance and virtue.” Toughened up by misfortune, men will be better able to endure the blows of Fortune. And the sight of good men enduring affliction will be a source of inspiration to others.

Adversities can also be sent by God as punishment. The people of the Netherlands had been too greedy and too pleasure-loving. God sent the war as a punishment for abusing His gift of liberty and by indulging in “license.” Lipsius (through Langius’ mouth) used the metaphor of the Persians who reportedly punished prominent offenders by whipping their robes and turbans (after removing them from their owners). By analogy, a person’s body and property could be compared to his turban and robes – “external things.” When God punishes us by attacking our persons or our wealth, He “does not touch us.” (Constancy, 135, 137). This metaphor was based on old Stoic doctrine on the irrelevance of externals.

With some trepidation, Lipsius ventured into another reason for constancy – the Stoic idea that everything God permits to happen is for the good of the universe as a whole, even if it seems harmful to an individual who forms a part of that universe.

Lipsius added some consolations for the seeming impunity and success of the wicked. The wicked always get punished, through internal pangs of conscience, through external punishment, or certainly through the eternal punishment which awaits unrepentant evildoers.

On Constancy then gave a brief discussion to the Stoic idea that it is our opinions of public events, not the events themselves, which generally cause us distress. Then Lipsius proceeded to give his version of reassurance to those enduring the war in the Netherlands: things weren’t as bad as they used to be. Citing histories of Greece and Rome, as well as Josephus’ history of the 1st-century Jewish Revolt, Lipsius gave casualty figures for wars, plagues, massacres, plundering, and excessive taxation of ancient times, which were greater than the losses suffered by the people of the Netherlands. Lipsius also invited contemplation of the evils of slavery in the classical world, rejoicing – prematurely, as it happens – that such a scourge did not exist in Christian lands. (One wonders how Lipsius would have addressed the modern reader, in light of the atrocities of the twentieth century.)

Lipsius’ Constancy was an international bestseller, getting translated into several languages. Dirck Coornhert, a civil-law notary and indefatigable religious controversialist, offered to bring out a Dutch translation, but Coornhert withdrew from the project when he wasn’t satisfied with Lipsius’ position on free will (the two men were close in their opinions, but not close enough for the very particular Coornhert). Lipsius found another Dutch translator. Illustrating the cross-border nature of the humanist project, an edition of Constancy was published in Spanish-occupied Antwerp. Readers elsewhere in Europe found the book spoke to their needs.

Lipsius carried out an extensive correspondence with intellectuals throughout Europe, both on the Catholic and Protestant sides of the religious divide. He published extensive editions of his correspondence, perhaps in emulation of Seneca who also published his “private” letters. To some of his Catholic correspondents in the southern Netherlands and Liège, Lipsius began dropping what could be seen as hits about coming back to Catholicism, and back to his youthful haunts in the now-Spanish southern Netherlands. His correspondents were eager to win him back to the Catholic faith, though one correspondent – Laevinius Torrentius, future bishop of Antwerp – was worried about conflicts between Stoicism and Christian orthodoxy. Torrentius pointed to the Stoics’ approval of suicide and alleged denial of life after death. Lipsius replied to criticism like this in later editions of Constancy, protesting that Christians could make use of the good parts of ancient philosophy. “I shall act as a philosopher, but a Christian philosopher” (Constancy, 5).

Then Lipsius embarked on another project which also produced a bestseller, Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae libri sex, or Politica for short. He also wrote a book on military affairs. The intended audience for these books were rulers – and their advisors and would-be advisors – in the centralized states then emerging in Europe. Lipsius dispensed a mixture of cynical advice and good-government prescriptions for a well-run state. Recommendations included well-trained citizen-armies (in lieu of ill-disciplined mercenaries of the sort who rampaged through the Netherlands during the war). Lipsius also envisioned popularly-elected “Censors” – modeled after the Censors of the ancient Roman Republic – who would issue non-binding public rebukes to people with bad moral habits. The censors would also double as tax assessors. Rulers were solemnly advised to hold to the same high moral standards which the censors would expect of the people – princes had to set a good example.

As it turned out, the most inflammatory part of the Politica concerned religion. Princes, wrote Lipsius, should require their subjects to adhere outwardly to the ceremonies of the religion of the country (but princes could not themselves redefine the content of a country’s traditional religion). Religious dissenters would be free to dissent in private so long as they externally conformed. For those who publicly advertised their dissent from the established religion, and tried to convert others to their dissenting views, the government’s response – using a phrase from Seneca – should be to “burn, cut” (ure, seca) to preserve the body politic. To Lipsius, open religious diversity in a country promoted sedition and war – a mainstream opinion in that era. In the Dutch Republic, for example, Calvinism was the established religion and the public practice of Catholicism was banned. In the southern (Spanish) Netherlands only Catholicism was allowed.

Evidence suggests that Lipsius’ own religious behavior was consistent with the ideas he preached. Lipsius was probably a member of the Family of Love, a religious sect popular among humanists. Members of the Family of Love – at least the branch Lipsius seems to have belonged to – believed in a minimalist, slimmed-down version of Christianity while holding no religious ceremonies of their own. Sect members attended worship service in the established church of whichever country they happened to live in. This not only sheds light on Lipsius’ Politica but on the ease with which he seemed to take on the official religious coloration of the different countries he lived in.

There were also Stoic precedents for the sort of public religious conformity Lipsius preached and practiced. As a youth, Seneca recalled in a letter to his friend Lucilius, he (Seneca) had adopted vegetarianism for philosophical reasons only to give it up at his father’s insistence, for fear of being mistaken for a follower of some banned foreign religion.

The religious discussion in the Politica provoked Dirck Coornhert. The self-taught Coornhert knew Latin, but unlike Lipsius wrote in Dutch for the public. Like Lipsius, Coornhert deplored the religious divisions of his time, but unlike Lipsius, Coornhert proposed the then highly-controversial solution of avoiding any persecution of Christians (or even of atheists).

In a book strongly denouncing the religious sections of the Politica, Coornhert tore into Lipsius. What had the Leiden scholar meant by the government upholding the traditional religion of the country – did he mean Catholicism? Wouldn’t Lipsius’ reasoning have justified the Spanish Inquisition in burning Protestants at the stake? This was not a theoretical question since the Spanish had shown themselves willing to do that very thing with Dutch Protestants, helping to provoke the revolt of the Dutch Republic. Lipsius’ reference to burning didn’t help matters. Was Lipsius sympathetic to the Republic’s Spanish enemy, which was at the time inflicting defeats on the Republican forces?

Coornhert was a celebrity in the Dutch Republic (if not necessarily a popular celebrity), and his attacks on Lipsius’ patriotism built up public pressure for an answer. Lipsius replied contemptuously to Coornhert – in Latin, of course – showering the impudent critic with insults and explaining that “burn, cut” was a medical metaphor, not an endorsement of the Spanish Inquisition. Private conscience must be respected, but no well-governed country could endure public religious dissent.

The authorities of Leiden and Holland feared that the conflict with Coornhert might prompt Lipsius to leave Leiden University, striking a blow at the prestige of the young institution and the endangered Republic in which it was situated. Officials denounced Coornhert and wooed Lipsius to stay, but it was too late. Lipsius obtained a medical leave of absence from Leiden, and in Easter 1591 he showed up at the Jesuit College in Mainz, Germany, and reconciled himself with the Catholic Church. Lipsius later said that his departure from Leiden was on account of “religion and honor” (religio et fama), referring to the fight with Coornhert.

Lipsius went back to the University of Louvain in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands and joined the faculty. He remained interested in the work of an exiled Spanish theologian who wanted to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. However, Lipsius was now identified with the Catholic cause – he proclaimed that he had never stopped being Catholic even while he was in Protestant lands (he denied authorship of the embarrassing anti-Catholic orations in Jena which his enemies dug up).

His health remaining a concern, Lipsius and a friend went to the mineral springs in Spa, near Liège. They fled from an incursion of soldiers from the Dutch Republic, now an enemy country due to Lipsius’ change of allegiance. Lipsius and his friend were able to leap over walls and fences and got away from the republican troops. (Perhaps Lipsius had been working at a literal gymnasium as well as a spiritual, Stoic one?)

Still seeking relief in his illness, Lipsius visited Halle, where there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. He believed that his prayers for healing had been successful, and he expressed his gratitude in a couple of ways. He hung his silver pen, with which he had allegedly written his great works, in the church of Halle near the shrine. A dedicatory poem accompanied the pen, immodestly listing the subjects he had written about with the pen – “promot[ing] Constancy,” “civic affairs,” “military matters,” “ancient times” – and he prayed that instead of winning “fleeting fame,” he gain “everlasting joy and life.”

Lipsius’ second tribute to the Virgin was a book about the healing miracles wrought at the shrine of Halle over several centuries, along with another book about miracles at another Marian shrine.

Was Lipsius’ conspicuous public piety merely a ruse? Was he still following the precepts of the Family of Love, hinted at in the Politica, of outward conformity to the official religion of whatever place he lived? Or had he developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary which brought in him a more sincere attachment to the Catholic Church? He certainly paid a price for his exhibitions of Catholic piety, in the form of personal attacks and backbiting. The English Stoic Joseph Hall was only one of many Protestants who mocked Lipsius for supposedly deserting philosophy for Catholic “superstition.”

His new allegiance also brought him new opportunities. In addition to accepting the post of royal Historiographer for the Spanish crown, he turned down offers of public office. He persuaded the Catholic censors to let him publish a revised edition of the Politica, agreeing to strengthen the emphasis on suppressing false religious opinions.

Now that his works could legitimately circulate in the Catholic world, Lipsius acquired a new audience among ruling-class Spaniards. Many ministers and ex-ministers of the crown either borrowed from the lessons of Politica or corresponded with Lipsius about court corruption. Lipsius wrote to a Spanish diplomat who was seeking a peace deal with England, the Dutch Republic’s ally. Lipsius hoped that a resolution of the Netherlands war was in the offing; in fact, Spain simply made a separate peace with England and pressed on with the war against the Dutch Republic.

During this time, Lipsius was preparing two final, monumental works. In 1604 came a comprehensive summary of the Stoic philosophy drawn from the available ancient sources. This became the most authoritative work on the subject until the twentieth century. As in Constancy, Lipsius tried to save as much of Stoicism as he could from Christian condemnation. Like Torrentius, he deplored the seeming Stoic obsession with suicide. On the subject of divine providence, however, Lipsius had overcome the reservations he expressed in Constancy and found that the Stoic and Christian conceptions of God and fate were compatible.

A year before his death, in 1605, Lipsius came out with an edition to Seneca’s prose works – again setting the standard for quite some time.

On his deathbed, Lipsius dedicated his fur-lined coat to Our Lady of Halle (“what old woman’s superstition is this?” privately fumed a Protestant fellow-scholar). Another deathbed scene was recounted by Lipsius’ executor, a friend – and of course former student – named Johannes Woverius. According to Woverius, someone sought to comfort Lipsius with Stoic philosophy, and Lipsius supposedly said “these things are vain,” then pointed to a crucifix as the real source of consolation. A couple other accounts of Lipsius’ death omit this alleged incident.

One final element of Lipsius’ legacy came after his death. The celebrated painter Peter Paul Rubens made a portrait representing Lipsius, in his fur-lined cloak, sitting alongside a couple of his philosophical companions and former students – the painter’s brother Philip and Woverius. Peter Paul Rubens (standing) is also in the picture, as is a bust of Seneca in an alcove above Woverius’ head. Rubens entitled his painting “The Four Philosophers.”

How can one write about constancy while continually switching from one religion, and one political allegiance, to another? Had he possessed modern analogies with which to justify himself, Lipsius may have compared himself to a surfer managing to stay atop his board in the face of wave after wave of fate. Through various political vicissitudes, he kept from falling off by skillfully shifting his position. This gave him the space to carry out his great project: imparting the wisdom of the ancients – especially the Stoics – to a world particularly in need of such wisdom. Lipsius’ students often became statesmen or public figures who were in a position to carry their teacher’s principles from the academy to the real world. At the end, it is possible that Lipsius was internally convinced of the truth of Catholicism as well as accepting it ni public, but this cannot be known for certain.

 Thanks in large part to Lipsius, Neostoicism was a flourishing movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then some philosophers re-examined Lipsius’ claims that Stoicism and Christianity could be harmonized. Unlike Lipsius, these philosophers decided that the Stoic conception of God was not adequate and that the philosophy did not allow for the immortality of the soul. Influential Christian philosophers dismissed Stoicism as practical atheism, similar to the “pantheism” of Spinoza. The French philosopher Diderot praised Stoicism for the same reason – a kiss of death from the Christian standpoint since Diderot was considered one of the forerunners of the anti-Christian French Revolution. When Stoicism had another revival in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, many of the new Stoics likewise downplayed the theistic elements of the philosophy.

Works Consulted

  • Marisa Bass, “Justus Lipsius and his silver pen,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes LXX (2007), pp. 157-194.
  • Christopher Brooke, “How the Stoics Became Atheists,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), pp. 387-402.
  • Theodore G. Corbett, “The Cult of Lipsius: A Leading Source of Early Modern Spanish Statecraft,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1975), pp. 139-152.
  • David Halsted, “Distance, Dissolution and Neo-Stoic Ideals: History and Self Definition in Lipsius,” Humanistica Lovaniensia, Vol. 40 (1991), pp. 262-274.
  • Theo Hermans, “Miracles in translation: Lipsius, Our Lady of Halle and two Dutch translations,” Renaissance Studies Vol. 29 No. 1 (2015), pp. 125-142.
  • Jill Kraye, “’Απάθεια and Προπάθειαι in Early Modern Discussions of the Passions: Stoicism, Christianity and Natural History,” Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (2012), pp. 230-253.
  • Halvard Leira, “Justus Lipsius, political humanism and the disciplining of 17th century statecraft,” Review of International Studies, (2008), 34, 669-692.
  • Lejay, Paul. “Justus Lipsius.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 4 Jun. 2020,
  • Justus Lipsius (R. V. Young, editor and translator), Justus Lipsius’ Concerning Constancy (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011).
  • Jan Machielsen, “Friendship and religion in the Republic of Letters: the return of Justus Lipsius to Catholicism (1591),” Renaissance Studies Vol. 27 No. 2 (2011), pp. 161-182.
  • Mark Morford, Stoics and Neostoics: Rubens and the Circle of Lipsius (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • John Sellars, “Stoic Fate in Justis Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 52, No. 4 (2014), pp. 653-674.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, translators), Letters on Ethics to Lucilius (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017),429-30.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (John Davie, editor and translator), “On Anger,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 18-52.
  • Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000).

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War, and numerous articles in print and online.

5 Steps to a More Tranquil Life by João Caldas

Peace of mind, who doesn’t want it? But there are always those problems bugging you, that make you stressed and unmotivated sometimes, and those can lead to some serious mental issues!

Sometimes the universe throws a curve ball that you weren’t expecting. It can be at a great moment, and turn out to be a minor setback or even life-changing. The fact is that the universe does not care about anything or anyone. Sounds harsh I know, but it’s the truth. Life’s full of setbacks, but they can only hurt you if you let them. If you choose to ignore what’s not in your control than their influence on you disappears.

I know it might sound very poetic, and maybe even sounds ridiculous to you, but make no mistake, this is no joke and it can help you. As a matter of fact, Stoicism is the ancient precursor of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), an immensely powerful tool to combat modern-day mental illnesses like stress, anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse.

Although a lifestyle completely based on Stoicism isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, there are steps you can take to help you live a more tranquil life. Here, I’ll be giving you a few steps that sound easy to do, but they are not. There will be times in life where you’ll fail. The important thing is to recognize your mistakes, learn from them, and after it, get back to the path you know is the right one for you!

Always Be True To Yourself And Don’t Lie.

If it’s not true, don’t say it and never betray your principles. It is easy to just tell a little lie once in a while. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a small, inoffensive little phrase, it’ll be probably forgotten within a week…” Yeah it might be but there’s someone that never forgets it, your subconscious. That part of your mind can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy. Epictetus said it best: “We tell lies, yet it is easy to show that lying is immoral.” (Enchiridion 52)

It doesn’t really need any more explanation. We all know lying is wrong. Sometimes we lie to get out of an uncomfortable situation and we say to ourselves that we’re right. Sometimes we lie to our boss giving an excuse for a mistake, so we don’t feel the burden of a so-called punishment.

But why not be honest? What’s the worst that can happen? I doubt you’ll wrong anyone important to you if you speak the truth to someone you feel uncomfortable with, so why keep lying? Why maintain the other person in ignorance and keep making yourself feel miserable? There are only two outcomes that can come out of that approach Either the person listens to you and tries to improve. Or he chooses to act bitter towards you, about which, you don’t have to worry about them. You’ll not be able to please everyone, and you’ll find that if you try to do so everyone might like you, but you won’t like yourself.

Why lie to your boss if it is a mistake you’ve made? Why do you try to take the burden out of your responsibility with words? If he somehow punishes you more severely than he should, why don’t you speak with him? There are also only two outcomes that can come out of it if you think about it. Either he listens to you and sees you’re right, or he goes forward with the punishment and maybe even makes it worse. And that would only show you he’s a bitter person, and you don’t have to worry about him. If he cannot accept any truth, he’s not fitted for a leadership position, and time will take care of that problem.

In time you’ll naturally gain the trust of everyone around you. Everybody makes excuses or tries to find a scapegoat. Nobody wants to be on the other side of the crosshairs, but we’re humans. We’re expected to make mistakes, and when we make them, think to yourself: Why am I trying to excuse something that is expected of my Nature?

An honest person is very rare nowadays, so why not make yourself an even more valuable person?

The subconscious makes up the greater part of the mind, and unlike the conscious mind that we’re in control of, think of the subconscious as your sleeping inner super-computer. It registers everything you say, you do, you hear, you see, you read, you taste, etc. It takes everything you give it, so it’s no surprise that when you keep feeding it good habits it will get used to them (and you will as well), but when you feed it bad habits, that might bring trouble.

Making those mistakes or “falling off the wagon” fits into this situation as well. You had some cake and you’re on a diet. You had another couple beers when you said it was enough. You said you were going to do X subject, or stop doing Y bad habit, but you fell off the horse.

Do not crack the whip on yourself. That will bring nothing but pain. Like I’ve said, your subconscious registers everything you give it. Seneca suggested the idea of being able to forgive yourself, which in turn will be much more productive. That approach produces self-love and respect. Ok, you’ve made a mistake, learn from that mistake instead of saying to yourself how bad you are. A simple change on the way you feel about a setback can be the difference from feeling bummed out and sad to see the problem as a point of experience and a stepping stone for a new you!

There’s No Need To Be Rude To Others, Humans Are Made For Cooperation.

It sounds easier said than done, well it is. It’s normal for you to feel aggravated, even angry when someone mistreats you, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that, as long as you don’t do anything crazy to them but what if you turned the other cheek? What if you were the better person?

Ok, let’s do a little exercise, bear with me on this one. Let’s say you’ve had a bad day at work and unfortunately on your way home you crashed your car against someone else’s car. Nobody got hurt but it’s always a bummer. You’re probably asking yourself how can this day get any worse, and getting ready to drop it on the other unfortunate soul that now has the same problem as you, but instead, he stays calm, never loses the smile he has on his face and helps you at the best of his abilities.

The accident was your fault but still, he understands that humans make mistakes, and when we help one another we can transform that huge problem into a much more manageable one. There’s no need to create a scapegoat when we have the same problem. Help people, be kind, errors are part of human nature. And now I ask you, could you still be angry in that situation?

Humans are made for cooperation – that’s how we created cities, developed civilization over time and went from caveman hunting mammoths and fending off sabertooth tigers to a worldwide network that was able to put people on the Moon.

That would not be possible if a caveman didn’t start helping a fellow caveman hunting and defending himself, which in turn, he learned from him and passed his knowledge down, that successively until this very day, we wouldn’t have achieved anything and might as well still be living in caves.

So why do you ignore this huge network we are part of? There’s only one direction for us and that is forward. To do so, it’s much easier and effortless to help people along the way which in turn they will help and push you forward, instead of climbing over all of them, exhausting yourself doing so and covering very little ground in the process.

Start seeing things for what they really are. Let’s say you know a thousand people, and any of those thousand people know a thousand more. That simple way of thinking puts you in the center of a network consisting of a million people. It’s not surprising that when you help someone and be kind to them you positively affect much of that network, you might be changing peoples lives without you knowing it, but if you go down the angry and bitter path towards someone, you might be destroying people’s lives without you knowing it.

Well, now this is a completely different point of view now, isn’t it? But don’t think you’ve been destroying lives in the past, learn from it and start fresh, as Marcus Aurelius put it: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”  

This isn’t something you’ll start implementing overnight, it will take time, but you’ll realize that when you start being kind to everyone, people start being kind to you. No person in their right mind keeps acting rude to someone that keeps acting kind to them. That rudeness won’t last long, but if it somehow does well, you’ve got nothing to gain by doing the same thing and aggravating yourself. Peace of mind is a very valuable thing.

Don’t Let Your Mind Enslave Your Body

This goes hand in hand with the first step, your mind can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy.

It’s easy to take the path of least resistance, in fact, a study conducted by the University of London concluded that our brain is wired to do so, and like Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura said: ”Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest”.

Here I’ll draw on Colin Wilson’s book, New Pathways in Psychology. Humans are very creative with a huge potential to achieve whatever they set their minds to, but that ability has become dormant in modern society and that is a cause for a lot of mental illnesses and unhappiness.

We are wired to chase what we believe is right for us. Mankind was never meant to be idle, since the beginning of time we are a hard-working bunch, that has now become passive with the facilities of modern society and technology.

Show me a man who is not a slave. One is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.


Marcus Aurelius also asked why he was complaining about what is expected of him? Why complain about what fate wants to give him? It’s normal to complain about work, getting up to go to that job you hate, doing that shore that you dread but the day is not only the work and the shore, the day also has much more than that.

There’s an awesome book by Jocko Willink called Discipline Equals Freedom. The title is pretty much self-explanatory, and putting it briefly, it comes down to doing what is hard and reaping the rewards later.

You cannot expect your life to change without hard work, without you pursuing what you know is right for you and later reap its benefits, sometimes it comes down to getting up at 6 am to go to the gym or to send emails, sometimes it means staying up late and go through weekends in your office, but with enough time and effort, you’ll be able to collect the benefits and have a much more tranquil life.

I’ll leave you with a little challenge: start going after what you’ve been putting away. You know, that new year’s resolution of exercising more, that book you’ve been keeping on the shelf, or even that pursuit of your dream job.

I know it sounds scary, I know it’s hard, but is also very gratifying, over time you’ll feel much more fulfilled. When you start chasing something you consider meaningful your brain will thank you.

But don’t make the mistake of going all-in at once. Start slowly, once a week, then twice, eventually it will be part of your routine and doing it an hour a day won’t feel like a chore, it will feel natural. But remember, resting is just as important, don’t forget that, there’s no need… or benefit for you to burn yourself out. When you feel like taking time off, take it! If you feel you deserved it don’t feel guilty about it, enjoy it then get back at it!

With enough time, it might even be easy for you to get up at 6 am to go to exercise or to simply start your day, you might even crave that. You’ll start to feel much more accomplished once you start seeing results, you’ll start saying to yourself that all that discipline and hard work are paying off, and you’ll be looking at your old life with a new mentality, you’re pursuing what fate has laid out for you.

Tough Times WILL Happen. You Have To Be Ready.

It’s funny that we deep down know it, but when tough times come we always get surprised and feel bummed out.

We don’t have any control over the outcome of anything if we think about it. We might guide our actions to the desired outcome, but if it will work or not it’s not really up to us sometimes. Fate just might take control of if, for example, you might keep your car in pristine shape, but it breaks down anyways. You might be in an amazing relationship and contribute a ton for it, but your other half broke up with you for whatever reason. You might work hard at your job, but you still got fired for again whatever reason

You can probably imagine the probable reaction to those events, and it’s normal. Just let it all out, it’s healthy actually, but don’t get stuck in it. In fact, use this quote by Epictetus as a little mental crutch: “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”

The truth is we might think the universe is against us but honestly, it has much more to do than to arrange difficulties for a single life form. It keeps moving forward, and sometimes it puts problems in front of us just because it can.

But if you start looking at adversity from another point of view, it will not only stop hurting you, but will also benefit you. There’s a popular quote that goes: “Hard times make hard men”.

Think that a lot of people have been through what you’re going right now, but ask yourself, what benefit did they get by being angry or depressed? None, nothing at all. It’s normal to feel like that at the time, it’s healthy to let some steam out, but is much more healthy and less draining to put a smile on your face and let your life move on. Whatever you’re going through probably won’t matter in a year, and it can only affect you if you let it. If you keep letting that problem involve you in its darkness you won’t let time do its thing and heal you!

So why not be different? Why not use that adversity to learn and evolve from it? It goes hand in hand with the first step as well, your subconscious registers everything, teach it to look at adversity with a new and much healthier point of view. Take that control away from the darkness and misery. There’s nobody in the history of mankind that succeeded by them, anybody that has a typical approach to adversity normally has a much harder time solving it.

Problems Are Part of Fate And Are Another Door Of Opportunity

It goes hand in hand with the step above, and keeping it going, let’s use those examples. There’s always something to take out of a problem when it happens. I want you to say “Good”, I mean really say it!

Got fired from your job? Good, I was unhappy in it, what about I try a new career? My girlfriend/boyfriend cheated on me? Good, it means that she/he didn’t deserve me and it has shown me that I couldn’t trust’em. My car broke down? Good, it means there’s a problem in a certain area or it’s a reason to make those maintenance checkups I never do.

There’s an awesome video by Jocko Willink that pretty much sums it all up, I’ll link to it here, but there are numerous examples in life of problems being another door of opportunity. I bet you can think of a few if you dig deep, but here are a few examples: food kept going bad? The refrigerator got invented. Diseases were rampant? People created vaccination. Needed to cross the sea? People invented ships. It was cold and dark? People discovered fire. Needed to transport cargo faster and with less effort? Yeah… the wheel. I can keep going on and on, but I think you get the idea.

I know, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done, but well you don’t have many options, you can let yourself feel angry or sad or take a much healthier approach.

Life is change and it will sound grim but it will end one day, so I ask you, why waste time and effort on feeling and acting in a way that will not benefit you? Take some good out of that evil and let life do its thing, help her by giving her the right tools, that is maintaining yourself happy and healthy, keep moving on.

Those steps are pretty much all mental crutches, and it will not be easy to do them, human emotions are natural, and an aggravated reaction to adversity is natural, even healthy, just let some steam out, it’s ok, getting lost in negativity now there’s when you have a problem and is where this steps can help you!

You won’t start being virtuous overnight. It will take time and effort, but you will realize that it’s a much more healthy approach to the problems of life. Sometimes all we need is another point of view, but here I’ll leave you a bonus step:

Be Grateful

For everything you have right now, you might not think it’s a lot, but many people don’t have it. Do you have food on the table? Do you have parents and people that love you? Do you have a smartphone or a laptop that you’re using to read this? Yeah, there’s a lot of things people take for granted but they don’t realize that they are so important and are considered basic and meaningless.

But this simple step will make you look at all the steps above with a new mentality, especially at this new hard time that we really can’t do much about, but the little we can do might be the difference in our life or many others, you can even turn this problem into an opportunity if you look well enough but for now, step by step, little by little, this will help you live a more tranquil and meaningful life.

João Caldas is a mental health writer living in Portugal, passionate about psychology and philosophy, and as a Stoic, always trying to figure what the Universe has prepared for him, helping people to the best of his abilities along the way. He is a fitness enthusiast, a history geek, and a heavy metal fan, all of those responsible for making the person he is today. You can check out his work on his website.