Stoicism Today Blog

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.

On Being a Natural Stoic by Mary Braun

I am a natural Stoic. I was able to find many of the ideas of Stoicism on my own, by struggling to make sense of my life as a young person.

When I encountered Stoicism as an adult, I could see how closely aligned the ideas of the ancient Stoics—whose lives were unimaginably different from mine—were to those I had arrived at in my youth. I have talked with other adults who grew up in similarly difficult circumstances and have found that re-creating elements of Stoicism on one’s own happens frequently.

Here are some parts I came up with as a young person:

  • virtue is the only good
  • kindness is the greatest virtue
  • no one errs on purpose
  • many things are not under my control
  • Much of what is wrong with the world is caused by other people trying to control things they cannot
  • things that are vitally important can disappear at any moment
  • many of the things that people claim bring happiness do not do so
  • we can reason our way to wisdom

The particulars of what happened to me in my early life that lead me to synthesize the above principles all began when I was seven, when, I became an orphan. My mother knew she was dying, and made plans for what she thought would be best for me. Although my mother could have chosen one of her aunts or her father and stepmother, she chose someone she knew from work, a childless female executive, and her husband, also a successful executive. They were much better off than anybody in my family — my mother and I lived in subsidized housing — and they lived in a lovely house in the toniest of the Detroit suburbs.

My new parents did not want my old family around. So, they somehow arranged for all the people I had previously known to disappear from my life. No one explained this to me. I inferred they no longer cared about me. After a few weeks in my new household, it was clear that I was on my own in this new world and there was no escape.

My new parents were prone to frequent, strong anger. For the first ten years of their marriage they operated under a kind of truce whereby they didn’t interact much. This truce broke down with the arrival of a seven-year-old, grieving child in the house. Neither of them had had so much as a younger sibling or cousin. They knew nothing about children. It turns out that caring for children takes time and family coordination. Having their busy, stressful work routines disrupted by a seven-year old apparently destabilized their mental health.

On top of that, everything about me was wrong, largely because I had come from a lower income family with a correspondingly different set of manners, behaviors, vocabulary, and pronunciations than they wished me, as their child, to present to the world. They set about fixing everything about me. Nothing in my world was stable except the contents of my head. I had to figure out how to navigate this environment. I developed Stoicism.

I think I remember the moment it crystallized. My new mother and I had listened to a news program about a person who was in a Soviet prison for decades. She asked me, “Do you know what the only thing is that no one can take away from you?” I liked riddles and this was a good one. I had personally had the experience of my family, house, school, clothes, furniture, pets, and friends being taken away. People could even cut off your hand but I was pretty sure if they took out your brain you’d die. That seemed like the best answer.

“Close!” she said, “Your memories. If you were in prison for years, like the man we just heard about on the radio, you could comfort yourself by thinking about how nice your last Christmas was. I would think about my vacation to Spain with your father. Then I wouldn’t feel so bad. Your jailers couldn’t make you forget your happy memories, no matter what kinds of torture they did.”

“Really?” I thought. Someone is torturing you and your best defense is thinking about lying on a beach? Beaches are nice, but these pleasant thoughts felt so flimsy against the kind of onslaught I knew someone could bring to you. I imagined a pleasant memory: when my older cousin showed me how to use a sewing machine. It was a lovely memory, basking in the attention of my older, incredibly cool, college freshman cousin.

Then I imagined the rain of blows that was likely to happen later that evening, blows that happened most nights, for reasons I could never understand. This memory, nice as it was, actually made things worse. It was unattainable; I had not seen my cousin in a long time. I could not do anything to get to see her. What sustained me through those episodes was thinking that I would not allow them to change who I was. Outward things that didn’t matter, like how I said, “milk” and what clothes I wore could change, but I would make sure that these blows could not reach inside of me, to the real me. I would remain virtuous. I would know I was still virtuous because I could see how I treated other people. I would never become mean or violent like my new parents. I could not understand why they wanted me to be unhappy, but I would not allow them to succeed. And, what’s more, I would never act in a way to make anyone else feel the way they were evidently trying to make me feel.

I would not yell at other people or call them names or hit them regardless of how angry I was or what they had done. No one could make me be mean. They could torture me as badly as the Soviets tortured the guy we heard about on the radio, but I wouldn’t cave. I would not give in to them. I would not treat other people badly.

I worked on my philosophy of life as I got older. I did not nail down the four cardinal virtues, but arrived at my own. If one was virtuous, it led to deep happiness. I could not define this deep happiness, but I could tell when I was there. My highest value was compassion really understanding what the other person had going on inside and trying to nudge them in a direction that might lead them towards more virtue, and thus some of this deep happiness. I see these as proto- ataraxia, sympatheia, and wisdom.

I noticed that people who avoided extremes tended to be happier. For example, being under the control of food—either because one was always searching for delicacies or because one was trying to avoid eating—led equally to unhappiness. A teenage version of equanimity. 

I valued justice, but justice was always confusing me because compassion felt more fundamental. I would think I had figured out what was just and then someone else would come along and explain why their claim was greater and I’d be confused again.

I did not identify courage as a virtue, but certainly lived it.

I valued honesty. I vowed never to lie, even if it would have gotten me out of punishment.

My new parents demonstrated daily that money and power did not lead to happiness, another Stoic theme.

Every day, every interaction, demonstrated to me more clearly that having my own inner retreat and keeping my inner sanctuary untouched by the outside world was valuable.

As an outsider in my new family, I could see patterns of behavior that other people simply accepted as the way things were. I could notice things about one or another family member and recognize that they were acting oddly. I would wonder why they were the way they were and then often times, because I am a good listener, these people would explain themselves to me, and even as a child, I could see that they were responding to internal forces and old, extinct situations, even though their actions were affecting living people around them in the present. When I first heard the Evelyn Waugh phrase, “To understand all is to forgive all,” I felt as though a light bulb had gone off in my head. There was a way to say what I had been feeling for years in just seven words. I feel this is a succinct way of saying Meditations II.1 “Begin each day by telling yourself that today I shall be meeting with the insolent…” 

As a person whose mother had died, and whose family had disappeared without warning, I understood memento mori.

These circumstances, death of a parent and having my family re-assigned, also led me to recognize the very limited collection of things that were under my control, compared to what was outside of my control. When I first saw the serenity prayer, I thought it weird that recognizing that most things were out of one’s control was a challenge for other people. I watched other people throwing themselves over and over against the wall of desire for wealth or fame which seemed an obviously losing strategy. No one is such a massive wrecking ball that they can breach these things by sheer force of will. In the process, everyone gets horribly banged up. Having been schooled in “you don’t control much” very early in life turned out to be quite useful.

The situation could not have been better designed to make it clear to me that I was on my own. There was no escape, except to turn eighteen. All I could do was make the best of it until then: develop my own plans to satisfy all my needs while keeping my core virtues intact. Many people who as children have been trapped in unpleasant situations have told me that they too developed a system for themselves involving an inner citadel, a core of their own personal virtue, and often a sense of memento mori. I think developing the core features of Stoicism is a natural human response to being in a difficult situation. I think that there are legions of natural Stoics, very few of them as articulate as Seneca, most of us born in a time when we were not particularly encouraged to share our ideas on philosophies of life.

William Irvine, in “On Desire,” describes the way humans superimpose their own life plans on top of the life plan that evolution gives us.

Consider, after all, the situation of actual slaves. They may not be able to escape from their master and his system of incentives, but they can form their own personal plan for living and superimpose it over his plan for them. They might, for example, refuse to let their bondage undermine their values. In particular, they might vow to do all they can to help their fellow slaves. This will entail periodically refusing to help their master achieve his goals, since doing so would undermine the goals they have set for themselves, in accordance with their plan for living. If for example, the master orders them to whip another slave, they will refuse. Of course, if they do this, they will likely be punished by the master’s overseer, but this will be a small price to pay in order to have a meaningful life—not meaningful in the cosmic sense, perhaps, but meaningful in the personal sense, and that is arguably what counts.

I developed my own plan for living, the core of which was that I would not make other people feel the way my new parents seemed to want to make me feel. What I have attempted to describe is the way my self-developed philosophy of life was not dissimilar from Stoicism.

I recognized virtue as the only good. I had a crowd of virtues, not a few cardinal ones. I had the germ of cosmopolitanism. I recognized the dichotomy of control. I had my own inner citadel. I agreed with the supremacy of reason. When I was introduced to Stoicism at the age of fifty, I saw that many of the ancients had been there first, confirming what my life had taught me.

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

The Stoic – June Issue

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization has been partnering with the Stoic Gym, and publicizing it here when it comes out. Questions about The Stoic can be directed to Chuck Chakrapani.

The theme of this issue is Stoic Contemplations. Contributors for this issue include prominent modern Stoics such as: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Flora Berenard, Jonas Salzgeber, Meredith Kunz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here.

  • RON PIES. The core beliefs of Stoicism
  • SENECA. The rules of life
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Meeting death
  • FLORA BERNARD. Mastering desires Facing aversions
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. The nature our possessions
  • SHARON LEBELL. Practicing whatever is useful
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Dealing with others
  • KAI WHITING. Collective wellbeing
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Living the good lfie
  • PLUS…Book excerpts, Stoics quotes for everyday of the month, Stoic Directory and more!

Get your copy now!

How to Think Like Musonius Rufus (And Memorize His Lectures) by Kevin Vost

“Remember…” – Epictetus[1]

“And now for something completely different…” – Monty Python

From Ready at Hand to Ever in Mind

Arrian compiled the condensed Enchiridion (Manual or Handbook) from Epictetus’s Discourses so that readers could have easy access to many of Epictetus’s fundamental Stoic insights, keeping them always ready at hand when needed them (indeed, in the size of a book that would easily fit in one’s hand, or within a modern-day pocket).  In the short 10th chapter of that Handbook Epictetus explains that whatever difficult life situations we face we need to ask ourselves what capacities we have developed to deal with them, calling into play our self-control when confronted with a beautiful body, our endurance to deal with hardship, or our patience if someone insults or abuses us.  The lessons of that very Handbook,  if studied, mastered, and internalized, can help us develop and display those and a host of other capacities or virtues.

In that same chapter, Epictetus instructs us to remember to turn to ourselves to activate these capacities and to habituate ourselves, to get used to doing this.  Indeed, by my count, Epictetus uses words translated into English as “remember,” or “keep in mind,” at least a dozen times in the 53 brief chapters of the Handbook.   In his Discourses, Epictetus reminds his students that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show their shepherds how much they have eaten, but they chew and digest that grass and then produce wool and milk of their own.  It is through remembering fundamental Stoic principles, and becoming habituated to using them in our own daily lives that we will produce the wool and milk of lives lived well, with a good flow, fulfilling through virtuous thoughts and deeds our capacities as rational human beings.

In this article, I will propose the use of a simple and effective memory method that can help us follow Epictetus’s advice to “remember” essential Stoic principles. Epictetus certainly remembered the principles he learned from his great teacher Musonius Rufus, and here we will apply the memory method to recall the gist of one fundamental lesson of each of Rufus’s lectures, a workable task, since only 21 lectures are extant, as presented in Stobaeus’s 5th century AD Anthology. We will examine and actually employ a technique that can keep Stoic principles not only ready at hand, but ever in mind.

Something Different: Memory Training as Spiritual Exercise (and a Part of Prudence)

Mental or spiritual exercises have long been essential to Stoicism, to not merely understand it as a philosophical system, but to employ it as an art of living. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations have been a prime example of Stoic spiritual exercises practiced through writing notes to oneself.  Many of Aurelius’s exercises involve powerfully focused use of one’s memory and imagination, from seeing things from a historical perspective and recalling how emperors from the distant past and all who lived in their time are no more, to mentally viewing the whole of the earth from a perspective of one high above it.

Now, the memory method I will describe is also heavily dependent upon the power of imagination, and in ancient texts, it is called an “inner writing.”  This method is certainly nothing new, usually being attributed, as it was by Cicero, to a discovery and invention by Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BC).  Many readers have probably encountered it as the “method of loci” or “memory palace” technique, and some may see it as a gimmick of sorts to produce ostensibly impressive memory feats of questionable utility. (Some experts, for example, have used the method to recall the digits of pi, with a current world record of 100,000 digits!)

As to the “completely different” aspect of this ages-old method, I don’t ever recall seeing it suggested or applied as a form of Stoic spiritual exercise, whereby one can take Epictetus’s advice quite literally and train oneself to systematically remember key Stoic principles, not merely to echo them back like a parrot, but to hold them in mind so as to digest them like a lamb and eventually produce some grade A milk and wool!

We will soon apply the method to the gist of some lessons from Musonius Rufus. Readers who know him will certainly recall his emphasis on the four cardinal virtues of sophrosyne, andreia, phronesis, and diakaiosyne  (or temperance, courage, prudence, and justice).  Interestingly, thinkers including Cicero in the first century BC, and Saints Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century AD, have argued that memory itself is an essential “part” of the virtue of phronesis or prudence, the practical wisdom we use to make the best choices in the acts of our daily lives. 

How so? Cicero described three essential “parts” or allied capacities of prudence as memory, understanding, and foresight, for to conceive of and achieve virtuous goals in the future (requiring foresight), we must act in the present (applying our powers of  understanding to current situations), guided by the lessons we have learned in the past (retained through memory).

Further, Cicero and St. Albert considered memory the most important part of prudence. Why? Per St. Albert: “When we say that of all those things that point toward ethical wisdom, the most necessary is a trained memory, because from past events we are guided in the present and the future, and not from the converse.”[2]  Note too that Albert refers to a “trained” memory, and he also states elsewhere that the method described by “Tully,” (Cicero) is the best. This is the age-old method of loci or locations that involves the use of visual imagery in a systematic order.

The oldest extant book on the subject, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, dates from the mid- 80s BC and was long attributed to Cicero. Though modern scholars do not believe Cicero wrote it, its method is also discussed in Cicero’s authentic De Inventione, which includes the fascinating story of how  Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-468 BC) came by to invent it. Though a few different versions of have come down to us, here is the gist of the story.

A wealthy man named Scopas invited Simonides to give an oration at a banquet one evening.  Simonides acknowledged his thanks to Scopas and during the recitation of a poem honoring a boxer he also expressed thanks to the twin gods Castor and Pollux who were popularly considered as patrons of athletes. Well, during a break, the ungracious Scopas told Simonides that since he thanked him and Castor and Pollux as well, he would pay him only half his fee and he could collect the other half from Castor and Pollux!

A short while later, Simonides was told that two young men had come to a door and said he was needed for an emergency.  As Simonides left the building, he saw the young men far down the street and ran after them.  He never could catch them and eventually returned to the building, after what amount to an extended wild goose chase. While he was away, however, the roof of the building had collapsed. So complete was the destruction that the bodies of the diners were crushed beyond recognition. Simonides discovered, to his surprise, that from his perspective as orator he could recall the visual image of where every person reclined and could identify them all. As the story goes, who were those two young men? Precisely. Castor and Pollux! And they paid him not only by saving his life but by leading to his invention of the methods of “artificial memory.”

Simonides discovered through this incident the power of visual impressions and of orderly arrangement as aids to the natural memory. Further, he soon came to realize that we do not need to see orderly arrangements of visual information to enhance our memory powers. Indeed, we need merely imagine them. This systematic use of visual images and a series of locations became the gist of “artificial memory,” or “the art of memory,” which employs our powers of imaginative visualization, reason, and language capacities to perfect our natural, non-strategic memory capacities. Indeed, viewed from a Stoic perspective, such memory methods could entail a revised impression of our own memory capacities, moving them from what we might have considered outside of our control to something within our control, for some to a surprising extent.

Over 1,700 years later, Thomas Aquinas summarized the gist of this method into four essential elements, which are the use of

1) visual images,

2) a system of orderly arrangement,

3) focused concentration, and

4) rehearsal or repetition.[3]

We already know the power of the 3rd and 4th elements since they are essential to most tasks employing natural memory, and they continue to play an important role when employing the art of memory. Thomas also explained (borrowing much of his cognitive psychology from Aristotle) that visual images should be used because all of our knowledge begins with information that comes in from our senses and visual images tend to be most powerful and memorable for most people. Further, he pointed out that even abstract or “spiritual” information is best held in memory when it is represented by a concrete, “corporeal” image that is easily pictured in the minds’ eye. Indeed, he also noted that we should make such memory images strange and unusual since we encounter so much information every day that we tend to forget what is mundane or routine.

As for orderly arrangement, among the possible ordered location systems mentioned in the ancient Ad Herennium itself, our most ancient book on the art of memory, the first one mentioned is that of a house. So, at last, I welcome you now to a modern house of memory! Note well, that for dramatic effect we will first memorize a series of locations and their associated images and then I’ll explain what they mean. So, please set your powers of imagination and concentration on high and I’ll guide you through the rest.

Memorize the Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve just arrived at someone’s house for the first time. (It’s a sprawling ranch home in an older neighborhood surrounded by mature maples and oaks.) You ring the bell, the front door opens (location 1), and to your dismay, an ancient philosopher greets you, points a giant needle at your chest, and asks, “Do you get my point?” (You surmise he’s a philosopher by his cloak and beard. Further, the cloak’s monogram “M.R.” leads you to suspect it is Musonius Rufus himself!)

Alright, he invites you inside and you carefully step on an open spot in a doormat (location 2) that is otherwise covered with seeds that quickly sprout plants shaped into V’s.  

Next, you glance out through a glass panel next to the front door (location 3), and there you see in the front yard Socrates conducting a dialogue with a group of women.

Upon the wall on the other side of the front door you see a portrait of your own parents (location 4), but upon closer inspection your parents’ image fades away and you see a schoolroom filled with young girls.

On the adjacent wall, oddly enough, you spy a gun rack[4] (location 5), and balancing precariously on top of it is an old-fashioned scale with a “P” in one saucer and a “T” in the other. You notice the scales tips down on the side of the “P.”

Okay, do you have those five locations and images down pat now?  If not, take a look at this simple summary chart, and test yourself further by seeing if you can repeat the sequence backwards, from the scales with the P and T at the fifth location, the portrait of the parents that fades into a classroom of girls at the fourth, Socrates and the women seen through the glass panel at the third location, the doormat with seeds sprouting V-shape plants at the second location, and that crusty old philosopher, perhaps Rufus himself, asking if we get his point at the front door.

1.  Front doorRufus with giant needle
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’s
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with women
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girls
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs T

Got them? Good.  Let’s progress a little further before we examine what all this means.

 Moving along to the center of the foyer at location 6, you spy the oddest sight so far, for a large human biceps and a human brain are both (somehow) lifting weights.

Looking overhead at the chandelier (location 7) you see and hear an unfamiliar man crying “Ouch!” 

Glancing across the foyer at a mirror on the wall (location 8), you see not your own reflection, but that of a crowned king.

Under the mirror sits a small cushioned bench (location 9), and you see sitting upon it a smiling man perched on a rock surrounded by water

Finally, built into the cushioned bench are a couple of drawers (location 10). You open a drawer, and to your dismay out pops a lawyer saying that you’re being sued.   Got those? If not, please mentally rehearse the scene a time or two, and feel free to look at this summary chart and at the foyer illustration as well.

6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain lifting
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”
8.  MirrorKing
9.  BenchSmiling man on rock
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at you

Now, assuming you’ve got them, let’s see what you’ve got.  At the front door (location 1), we imagined Rufus with the needle asking if you got his point. This silly and hopefully memorable image appeared at location 1 as a simple reminder of the theme of Rufus’s lecture 1: “the lecture showing that one does not need to use many arguments to prove one point”[5]

The seeds upon the door mat (location 2), will help us recall a central theme from Rufus’s second lecture: “the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” The “V” shape of the plants was our simple reminder of virtue.  Most of these images and the themes they represent are pretty straightforward, with perhaps the exception of our scales at location 5. The “P” and the “T” were used to represent Practice and Theory.  Per Musonius, both are needed, but practice outweighs theory.

So then, if you have recalled our first ten images, you have also memorized one key theme from each of Rufus first ten lectures, in their exact order. (They are spelled out in a summary chart near the end of this article.)  To borrow some metaphors from Rufus’s first two lectures, merely one image can be sufficient not to prove, but to recall one important lesson. And more to the point, these little mnemonic images are like the little seeds that can, with habituation through additional practice and study, grow into richer retention and comprehension of each lecture that they summarize. 

For example, we pictured Socrates with women in our third location because in his third lecture Rufus argues, contrary to many thinkers of his time, that women should indeed study philosophy. It is in this lesson that he first spells out the four cardinal virtues of prudence, self-control, courage, and justice. If you do not have them memorized already, you could simply add to that scene something along the lines of the images of a persnickety old woman named Prudence (perhaps with three faces to gaze at the future, present, and past), a woman with a remote control that moves her own limbs, the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, and a Supreme Court Justice to represent those four cardinal virtues. 

If you would care to memorize some of Rufus’ own examples of these virtues as lived out in the lives of women, picture Prudence managing a household, the remote control making the woman remove herself from an improper sexual temptation, the cowardly lion as a female lioness working up her courage to protect her children from attack, and the Supreme Court Justice refusing to do anything wrong.

Further, if you should read and study Rufus’s lessons repeatedly over time, you will find that even the one simple image provided for each lecture will trigger in your mind additional content from each lecture through natural memory processes, serving somewhat like a key that will open the lectures to you. This will also allow you, when you have time on your hands but nothing to do or read (e.g., waiting at doctor’s offices, airports, etc.), to call to mind your memory tour and see how much of the detail from each lecture your images can call to mind.

 Please note that the images I have provided are merely suggestions, somewhat arbitrary mnemonic reminders based on the first associations that pop into my head as I read Rufus’ lectures. Images you create for yourself can be even more powerful, since they resonate more directly with your own knowledge base and experiences. And indeed, the same applies to systems of locations. What house do you know better than your own? Please feel free to construct you own personalized “memory mansion” if you prefer.

Note well too that the location system itself is like an internal notepad or word processing template.  Once you have mastered a set of locations through repeated practice, you can mentally “write” anything you’d like on the same locations and use them over and over again ad infinitum crafting new images as the “ink” to write down in your mind completely new sets of materials. You could use it for something as mundane as your grocery list, having perhaps a giant banana greet you at the front door, tripping over a sack of potatoes on the door mat, and so forth. 

But you have a different list each week? No problem. Recall that repetition is essential to these methods. If you do not rehearse your lists, they will fade away.  Information that is important enough to maintain, like the lessons of Rufus, are worth the time to repeat and contemplate as Stoic exercises, and the more often they are repeated, the more firmly they will be stored in your long-term memory.    

 I should also note that from its earliest days in the Greece of Simonides and the Rome of Cicero, this method was used primarily by pubic speakers to deliver their orations without any kind of text or notes.  They would not memorize their talks word-for-word, a very demanding and tedious process that could easily be derailed during delivery.  Rather, they would use locations to memorize the kind the key points of their orations in their exact order, leaving them free to speak spontaneously and never lose track of where they are.

In fact, as the author of books on memory, I pretty much feel obligated to use this method myself for every public talk I give, usually using the same house supplied in this article (with its six rooms of 60 locations in total.) In a talk of an hour’s length, I might have 40 or more key points I want to make. Using this method, after outlining the points on paper or on a screen, I visualize them in their proper places in the house. After a few minutes of study and rehearsal, I could literally give my talks backwards, from conclusion to introduction, though I’ve yet to find a proper occasion to do that!

Knowing that I could deliver them backwards makes every talk an enjoyable challenge, and is by far, my method of choice. (In fact, this very article idea came to me as I began to memorize these lectures myself for an upcoming Practical Stoicism podcast on Musonius Rufus.)  I should note too that different sets of information stored in memory houses tend to “hang together” well due to the natural power of association. Indeed, at times I have given two different talks in the same day using the same locations to literally house two completely separate sets of information.

 So, if you would care to dig deeper into the memory method, and deeper into the lessons of the lectures of Musonius Rufus, I have suggested below some possible images for all of the 21 lectures, along with some additional memory room illustrations that have appeared in some of my memory books. Note too that the effort and practice required to use this method can provide nice side benefits of its, enhancing one’s powers of mental discipline, concentration, and increased freedom from extraneous distractions.

I hope that if you give the method a try you will find some of Rufus’s fundamental Stoic lessons always at hand, ever in mind, and read to put into practice, again, and again, and again.

Musonius Lectures Mnemonic Summary

LocationMnemonic ImageLecture Theme
1.  Front doorRufus with giant needleUse few, effective arguments to get points across.
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’sAll of us possess the seeds of virtue.
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with womenWomen should also study philosophy.
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girlsDaughters should be educated like sons.
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs TPractice outweighs theory.
6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain liftingTrain both body and mind.
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”What to make of pain.
8.  MirrorKingEven kings need philosophy.
9.  BenchSmiling man on rockExile is not evil.
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at youDon’t sue over for personal insults.
11.  Center of living roomFarmer hoes your floorFarming as good occupation for a philosopher
12.  Back yardXXX red light districtAppropriate  and inappropriate sexual behaviors
13.  CouchWedding ceremonyThe chief purposes of marriage
14.  Coffee tableXanthippe soaks SocratesWhy marriage is proper for philosophers
15.   TelevisionBabies grow fast on screenAll babies born should be raised.
16.   FireplaceYour father lectures youHow we honor and obey our parents
17.  Doorway out living roomWorld’s oldest manThe best thing for old age (philosophy)
18.  Doorway in dining roomFeast laid out on floorVirtue and the exercise of self-control in eating.
19.  ChairFavorite shoes and clothesHow should a philosopher dress?
20.  Center of tableModel of your houseHow should a philosopher furnish his house?
21.  Wall thermometerLong beard hanging down from its bottomTo shave or not to shave? (And why is that important?)

Illustrations by Ted Schluenderfritz.

[1] Epictetus, The Handbook (The Encheiridion), Nicholas P. White, trans. (Hackett: Indianapolis, IN, 1983), Handbook chapters 1, 2, 3,10, 15, 17, 20, 32, 33, 36, 42, 46.

[2] From De Bono (On the Good), cited in Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 275.

[3] Summa Theologica, II-II, 49, 1 “Whether Memory is a Part of Prudence?”

[4] I first used this memory foyer to show how to memorize the 10 Commandments.  A padlocked gun rack was our reminder of the 5th Commandment (in the Catholic rendering), which you might guess is “Thou shalt not kill.” That portrait of the parents served a similar purpose, the fourth commandment being to “Honor your father and mother.” The other locations had less explicit connections, but for the 7th: the chandelier was said to be made of steel to remind us “Though shalt not steal.” I’ll explain in the text how the same locations can be used ad infinitum for completely new sets of material.

[5] Cynthia King, Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, (William B. Irvine, Pub:, 2011), 23.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty-one books including Memorize the Faith! and The Porch and the Cross. He is currently working on a new book – How to Think Like Epictetus (And Memorize His Handbook!) that will employ and flesh out this method.

The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

Isn’t it more appropriate for us humans to endure and be strong? We understand, after all, that we suffer for the sake of something good, either to help our friends, to aid our city, to fight on behalf of women and children, or for the most important and weighty reason of all, to be good and just and self-controlled. No one achieves this without pain. And so I conclude that because we humans acquire all good things by pain, the person who is unwilling to endure pain all but condemns himself to being worthy of nothing good.

Musonius Rufus

As someone who runs along a seesaw with psychology at one end and philosophy at the other, I try to stay balanced and centred in an attempt to be objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Psychologists are taught to find evidence by conducting experiments on humans and non-human animals, but the search for evidence at the moment is heartbreakingly painful. Statistics are grim reminders of facts. I don’t want to believe them because they are too awful to face.

The proportions and percentages don’t matter. All lives are equal and every life that ends disturbs me. Death is the price we pay for living, it is that unwelcome visitor who will come knocking one day. Stoics aim to display courage in the face of it and memento mori is a daily mantra. Negative visualisation is recommended, but it is not for the faint hearted. The shock can be stressful for sensitive souls. I hear the gentle dulcet tone of Derek Parfit describing how simple it can be to cease to exist. As a parent I don’t mind leaving the party but my concern for those left behind never quells. 

During my Logotherapy training one distressing part of the course focussed on writing and sharing autobiographies. Viktor Frankl didn’t conceptualise this methodology, but some teachers of his psychological theory have incorporated it into their curriculum. In fact, he was extremely reluctant to record his own experiences in Man’s Search for Meaning. When he was eventually persuaded to, he rapidly fired it out in a period of nine days.

I was ever so slightly disappointed in recent times, when factual inaccuracies in his account regarding the amount of time he spent in some of those places, came to light. Together with Marcus Aurelius and my long departed Grandad, Frankl had become a role model for me to look up to. The longer I dwelt on it though, the more I realised it is of little consequence whether it was Theresienstadt, Dachau or Auschwitz. Those were all places of evil created by humans and maybe Frankl or his translators wanted to put emphasis on the one that was most widely known, for the worst of all possible reasons. Furthermore, I came to realise how tiresome a woman’s search for father figures can be, whilst acknowledging that role models should not be worshipped. 

Creating one’s own narrative of the past can be pleasurable depending on how we choose to frame it. We can sift through what we think we remember and put our own spin on it. We can run up the molehills and slide down the mountains safe in the knowledge it is all in the past. We can choose to feel relieved and chuffed with ourselves for coping with struggles and battling through pain. But even though it has all happened it doesn’t stop existing.

Our memories are part of us. We are our experiences. You can try and file the sad and traumatic ones in the completed filing cabinet and throw away the key, but they have a particularly insidious habit of leaking out just when they’re least needed. Maybe if you step up to the podium to give a presentation, or if your child asks why the world is such a bad place, you may find the burden of your experiences seems heavier than ever before.  

Writing can have a cathartic or therapeutic effect. Journaling is very high on the list of Stoic priorities. Marcus and Massimo are testament to its value. Donald encourages us to record our anxious thoughts. We can make our thoughts into words before they become intentions or actions. We can distance ourselves from them and make room to create a space. That space is invaluable, unquantifiable and safe. Freedom exists there, in a gap between the mind and the body.

This place can be anything you want it to be and it doesn’t need to have a name. The ancient Stoics may have called it the soul, and some may call it the spirit. Frankl named it the noetic dimension, the part of us that experiences emotions, love and creativity. The individual bit that makes us uniquely different from other humans, even though collectively we are the same species. 

But “wait a minute” as Homer would say. Finding this space of freedom may require faith or belief. Maybe a leap too far into a fantasy land somewhere between fact and fiction. Many experimental psychologists get fidgety and dismissive about such non-physical stuff. I can understand why.

Indoctrination and inculcation have occurred in many settings. Various schools of psychological analysis and therapy have been freely associated with dubious methods. Psyches are delicate things and they should be treated with care, the relationship between psychotherapist and patient being key to unlocking the fortress.

We’d be lost without psychologists who study our behaviour statistically. Without them we wouldn’t know how effective modern Stoic therapy is. Tim uncovers the evidence and tells all the Tiggers in the Stoicon room that ‘zest’ is the property that increased the most overall amongst participants in Stoic Week. I’m confused though because I don’t know how zest can live in the same room with ‘amor fati’ above the door. 

I need to run back to the other end of the seesaw in search of wonder. Philosophy keeps the endless search for meaning alive. Without the ceaseless attempts to gain wisdom through analysis and argument we may as well give up on existence. I crawl out of my safe space where I have been hiding from the world news and seek sanctuary by listening to That Philosophy Guy on YouTube. I

’m delighted to hear encouraging tales of Stoic endurance during the current crisis, as well as helpful tips on how to think about what’s inside the box. The mention of Alasdair Macintyre reminds me that miracles can happen to those who believe them. I smile because another human laughs at ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Larry David, I hope you know how much you have helped my family as we have eagerly gathered on the sofa to share humour during this strange situation.

Oh gosh, there it is in print – the ‘H’ word. ‘Hope’ is a word I can’t recall seeing too often in ancient Stoic texts. I wish it was a preferred different or a preferred indifferent, or maybe a dispreferred indifferent or a dispreferred different. I’m losing the dichotomy of control and need help! Being helpless and feeling hopeless is not a good thing or a good look. 

Why did the Stoics choose fate over hope? Maybe they preferred to stay grounded like the Buddhists, living for the moment instead of having one foot in the past and one in the future. The Christians entered the fray to spread the word of hope, and being the eternal optimist I get it. Life can be pretty grim without hope. Not to mention how we couldn’t have had that movie classic ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’ without Jesus on our side. However, unless you believe in those miracles that didn’t exactly end well.

A few years ago, as a rookie philosophy student at The Open University my baptism of fire began with David Hume. Nigel Warburton gave me plenty to get my teeth stuck into, so I continued to remain a bundle of emotions with a sceptical perspective. But the Stoics were more successful. They threw aside hope and embraced fate instead. They loved the idea so much they wore the T-shirts with amor fati slogans. If you are happy with anything life throws at you, hope is surplus to requirements. The Stoic sage doesn’t need it. I wonder whether modern Stoics would consider opening the door to let hope in, if it is an intention you wish for others, but not for yourself. 

Truth be told I don’t think some of us are built like those ancients. I struggle to identify with Marcus, the male in his armour heading into battle with a plague hot on his heels. Even Musonius, the most feminist Stoic, equates courage with ‘manliness’ (andreia). I’m inclined to agree with Frankl who doesn’t reduce the human person to gender. We are simply all the same apart from dangly bits and hidden crevices.

Many of us have grown up with a hopeful mindset and it’s rare to find a child who doesn’t believe in magic. Hope seems to be in innate part of being human but sometimes sadly it can be extinguished. Being separated from early caregivers is not an isolated strange situation but it can stay with us. Every day we grow like onions adding layer upon layer of experience. We are at the mercy of our environment and those who inhabit it, whilst we are also products of our physiology where genetic and biological factors play a part. No wonder sometimes in later life it can be hard to find meaning in it all.  

Consequently, I take care not to overburden myself with total responsibility for my well-being. Both Stoicism and Logotherapy are forms of top-down philosophical and psychological treatments. Whilst having some value for self-care during the current crisis it may be unwise to be solely reliant on either. They both may be needed but are a big ask of many on a continuous basis. Maybe it’s better to leave some resources in the tank for when they are essential.

Have another read of Antonia Macaro’s book ‘More Than Happiness’. Be mindful and stay safe in the moment. Nevertheless, by deep searching I should be able to gain inspiration from the Stoics and the one who springs to mind is Epictetus. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches, and he may be a carrier of guilt and shame. Moving from slavery to mastery is never easy. Epictetus isn’t going to tell you what you want to hear to stay in your good books or indulge that inner child you may be clinging on to.

Maybe there are some caveats in his Discourses that should carry warning signs. Even allowing for context, Epictetus wouldn’t be welcome at many feminist soirees. Then there is his controversial open door policy. Young people should be especially wary of how they interpret it. In our modern times nobody should ever feel their suffering is too great to bear. Talk to someone please and always remember you are loved. 

Concerns aside, Epictetus speaks to me like Frankl does. They both believe in the power of the ‘will’. In Frankl’s case it is the ‘will to meaning’ whilst Epictetus wears ‘prohairesis’ on his chest. He is the Stoic existentialist who believes we have the freedom to make a choice. Epictetus reminds us it is not simply a matter of what we can and can’t control based on what feels good or bad. We need to hit our personal gym and work on attitude.

The human capacity for reason not only makes us rational beings but opens up a space where we can develop our moral character. By lifting the bar and increasing virtue we become better people for those around us, not for ourselves. Stoic medals aren’t won for being superior to anyone else or by telling people how they should live the good life. In fact, there are no medals. No wonder Stoics brim over with zest. Zest is motivational and inspirational but not goal driven like hope. For Stoics, zest can be that enthusiasm or spirit that spurs them on without the need to search for rewards. Thank you Epictetus for providing me with inspiration. 

Resources now abound. I can retreat into my soul and work on virtue. I can utilise my noetic space and avail of freedom. And last but not least I can go to The Good Place and laugh. In any of these places I have to be prepared to endure anything that comes my way. Good and bad, pleasure and pain, suffering and death. Bring it on! That’s what life is all about. 

So, you would expect when error involves the things of greatest importance, our natural confidence is perverted into rashness, thoughtlessness, recklessness and shamelessness. At the same time, all fear and agitation, we exchange our natural caution to the will and functions of the will, and the mere wish will bring with it the power of avoidance. But if we direct it at what is outside us and none of our responsibility, wanting instead to avoid what’s in the control of others, we are necessarily going to meet with fear, upset and confusion. Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear. Which is why we praise the poet who wrote, ‘Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is’.


Alison McCone is a lifelong learner about to graduate with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies. She is in the process of completing a thesis in Logotherapy devoted to her husband, two sons, family and friends. She is also a Volunteer at Fighting Words in Ireland.

Stoic Students: How We Are Learning to Let Go of Worry and Find Peace by Ryan Racine and Igor Ratkovic

Throughout university, we studied a lot of theory. We read the works of thinkers like Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, and were taught to question a variety of societal norms that we commonly held to be true. While these theoretical ideas excited us, there was something noticeably missing from our education, that being a focus on the mental health side of student life. We often felt unsure about how to handle difficult situations at school, such as remaining optimistic after receiving a low grade on a paper or staying motivated during the mental grind of exam season. It was not until we started reading Stoic philosophy on an ongoing basis that we learned how to stay positive in the face of adversity.

We never formally studied Stoicism in university. In fact, the only mention of it came when one of our English professors briefly referenced the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during a lecture on Williams Shakespeare’s Richard III. Though we did not dive into a deep exploration of Aurelius’s ideas at the time, the first Stoic seed was planted, one which would eventually grow into not only a fascination of the philosophy but a willingness to live out its core principles and teachings.

After finishing graduate school, we continued to explore the philosophy by reading not only the original texts of the Roman stoics Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius but also contemporary authors like Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson, both of whom write about Stoicism and its relevance to the modern society.  We found that the time-tested practices that Stoic philosophy had to offer made a real difference in our day-to-day lives.

Since these ideas were not being discussed at university, we decided to build our own workshop around the most effective Stoic practices for letting go of worry and finding peace. We were lucky enough to present to a couple of Teachers College classes not too long ago about how Stoicism has changed our lives and were grateful for how receptive the students were to our ideas. One student thanked us for confirming that the fears she has about her future are also shared by her peers. She left the presentation feeling more at ease, knowing that the challenges she has are not unique to her situation while at the same time feeling optimistic that the practices we discussed could help her moving forward.

We will be going through five Stoic practices below that we include in our workshop, practices that we use on a daily basis in both our personal and professional lives. Though many people would consider them common-sense practices, we find that the business of life sometimes gets in the way of remembering their usefulness.

Practice #1: Separate What Is In Your control From What is not in Your Control

Epictetus said that obsessive worrying is often a result of stressing over an external outcome that has not happened yet. He argued that we should instead concern ourselves with matters that we have complete control over. This idea is central to the Stoic teaching known as the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control is all about making the best use of what is in our power and not being attached to external results. This principle is easier said than done, but if practiced, it can help simplify our priorities in life while making us more serene.

If you are a student, consider the things that you have complete control over, such as how you frame events, how you respond to difficult situations and your intentions. Since things like reputation and grades are not completely under your control, it should be the least of your worries. Prioritize attending class as frequently as possible, going through course readings carefully, putting as much effort as you can into a given assignment, and making a daily schedule that works for you. If you focus your attention on factors that are only within your control, you give yourself the best possible chance to succeed.

Practice #2: Premeditate upon Future Difficulties

A second useful practice is what Seneca calls “premeditatio malorum,” which means to meditate upon future difficulties. This practice involves imagining what you believe to be the worst-case scenario that could arise from a particular situation and learning to be okay with the outcome. For example, if you are working on a seminar presentation, consider the possibility that your audience will not be receptive to your ideas and questions. This kind of thinking may seem pessimistic, but it is far from it. Premeditating on difficulties is not about continually fixating on what could go wrong but briefly considering what could happen if it does and understanding that, in most cases, our world will go on. If we can make peace with the worst-case scenario, we can then effectively work towards improving our chances of success.

We believe that there are significant benefits to contemplating the possibility that you may not receive the grade you were hoping for in a course or considering that you could end up switching programs at some point down the road. Premeditation can help us take pressure off the need to reach a particular destination as quickly as possible (e.g., a career upon graduating). Instead, this practice teaches us to slow down and appreciate the unpredictable journey of life.

Practice #3: Take an Outside View

Epictetus says that when we go through some type of misfortune, we should imagine as if the same thing happened to a friend and consider the advice we would provide him or her. Reminding ourselves that difficulties happen to everyone is comforting and can help us to avoid catastrophizing the hardships we are facing. A related practice that Aurelius uses is to ask ourselves if we would likely feel the same way about the particular problem we are dealing with 10 or 20 years from now. If you think you would not even be able to recall it, then the matter might not be as life-altering as you think.

Students can remind themselves that other people in their program have encountered and will continue to encounter similar difficulties, such as failing an assignment, pulling an all-nighter, or even dropping out. Knowing that others have lived through rough patches and became stronger for it can help us realize that we can do it too.

Practice #4: Be Willing to Reframe Your Value Judgements

The Stoics believed that the words we use to describe something affect how we feel about it. Therefore, using strong words (such as horrible, stupid, etc.) when we evaluate things can fire up our emotions in a vicious cycle. Instead, we should avoid catastrophizing events and instead stick to the facts as accurately and objectively as possible.

In his book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson details the frail state that Aurelius was in while governing Rome. Due to his chronic health problems, the Roman emperor went through an extraordinary amount of pain daily and was bed ridden near the end of his life. However, he did not complain nor view physical discomfort as a bad thing. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to develop internal strength and resilience. We can use Aurelius’s positive attitude during his final days on earth as motivation. His outlook inspires us to consider the silver lining in any situation we may face.

If you are met with hardships at school, try using any of these Stoic reframe mottos to help you view an event from a different perspective:

  • “It is not what we bear, but how we bear it.” – Seneca
  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “Whenever you find yourself in a hole, remind yourself of Hercules who became strong only because of the challenges he faced.” -Jonas Salzgeber
  • “The divine will exist and directs the universe with justice and goodness. Though it is not always apparent if you merely look at the surface of things, the universe we inhabit is the best possible universe.” – Epictetus

Practice #5: Follow a Morning Routine

Aurelius believed that one of the best times to look inward, examine, and reflect is in the morning. He would spend time meditating on the potential challenges he might encounter later on in the day. As opposed to waking up and immediately rushing to school or work, a morning routine allows you to get a head start on the day. Having a morning routine will allow you to attain a small victory before you leave the house, and this feeling can lead to a domino effect for the rest of the day.

Start thinking about what your current morning routine looks like and whether it needs to be improved. Do you find yourself rushing to get to where you want to be? As an example, our morning routines look similar and consist of waking up early, reading self-development books for around thirty minutes, exercising, showering, meditating, and writing. We also make time for journaling, a practice that Aurelius valued as well. If you are unsure about where to start with your journaling, start with writing one thing you are grateful for. Then, write about what your day is expected to look like while including some potential problems that may occur. For example, you may consider the possibility of not doing well on your midterm or having a disagreement with group members about a presentation idea. Lastly, reflect on what you could tell yourself to help get you through these difficult situations (you may want to revisit some of the above reframe mottos).

Please know that we are not trying to be prescriptive by suggesting that all of the above practices will work for every student. Anyone reading this blog post is free to discard the bits of advice that they disagree with or find irrelevant to their current circumstance. The great thing about the Stoic philosophers is that they did not consider their words to be doctrinal and were open to being challenged. However, Stoic philosophy has shaped our worldview for the better and, in our opinion, can help influence others, especially students trying to keep up with the demanding expectations placed on them by teachers, parents, and themselves. Stoicism is a philosophy of life and it’s meant to be practiced in the real world, so go out there a give it a shot. Like many others before you, you may well find that the philosophy of Stoicism, if practiced regularly, can bring more joy, serenity, and freedom into your life, even during the most trying of times.

Igor Ratkovic is a full-time entrepreneur and award-winning YouTuber with over half a million subscribers. He completed Teachers College in 2017 and a Masters of Arts in English in 2018 at Brock University.

Ryan Racine is a school teacher and college instructor. He received his Masters of Arts in English in 2017 and has published in magazines such as PACE, The Ekphrastic Review, and University Affairs.

Last Chance to Enroll for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2020

There’s still time to enrol in the 4 week Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT).

This training has run a number of times before and secured great feedback and very significant improvements in well-being, maintained after 3 months for most participants.

You can take part in it regardless of whether or not you have taken part in it before or not and regardless of how much or little you know about Stoicism. We recommend setting aside about 20 minutes a day for reading and exercises related to the course.

You will also get the opportunity to find out how Stoic you are at the beginning and end of the course, and how your well-being changes, by filling in the questionnaires (You don’t have to do this, but it sure helps us with our research and we hope it’s helpful to you too.,

Donald Robertson, the author of the course, is once again facilitating, this year with assistance from Tim LeBon. Donald will be hosting weekly webinars on Sundays. For the first time there will also be a Facebook group and twitter feed dedicated to the course.

To enroll, please visit the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course homepage.

You have until Sunday to join the 4,000 people already enrolled!

Hope to see you there.

Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon

Countdown to SMRT Course – 4 Days Until It Starts!

The 4-week Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course starts this coming Sunday, May 10. This is a free online course designed to help students learn about key principles and practices of Stoicism, and apply them in day-to-day life.

As the name indicates, two key focuses of the course are attentive mindfulness and developing resiliency. Both of these are helpful for dealing with the usual challenges of our lives, careers, relationships, as well as the worldwide crisis we find ourselves in at present.

It is an intensive course, so participants should expect to devote 20-30 minutes most days, and 1 hour of time to the reading for each week. Thousands of people have taken this course over the years (and some of them keep coming back!)

If you think this course might be good for you, and you’d like to enroll, click here to be taken to the course site.