John Lambton and the Wyrm

🐉 John Lambton
& the Wyrm

A child’s tale about metaphysics, magic spells, and dragons.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2014.

Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you all an awful story.
Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you about the worm…

The Little Boy Goes Fishing

Lambton WormOnce upon a time, almost five hundred years ago, in the Northeast of England, there lived a young boy called John Lambton.  His father was a very important man, called the Earl of Lambton, and they lived in a big house called Lambton Castle.  John Lambton was a very naughty boy.  At least he seemed so on the outside.  On the inside, though, he was good – he just didn’t know it yet.

One Sunday morning when he was supposed to be going to church with the other children he decided to sneak off because it was a lovely sunny day and he wanted to smell the flowers and go fishing.  So he ran away, down a path to a big river, called the River Wear.  Half-way to the river, he he met an old man walking the other way.  The old man stopped when John Lambton drew near.  He didn’t say anything at first.  He just looked at him strangely.  Suddenly he barked “No good will come of this!”, and then turned away and walked off quickly down the path.  (Some people say the old man wasn’t really a man at all but something else, maybe a dragon or an angel in disguise.)  Anyway, John Lambton ignored him and carried on walking down to the river where he hid among some trees so nobody would find him, and began fishing.

Although he was there all day long he didn’t catch any fish, and he was getting bored.  He was just about to go home when something odd happened, though.  He felt a tug on his fishing line and he pulled a creature out of the water but it wasn’t a fish.  It was something very queer indeed: a little black worm covered in slime, and it wriggled in his hands and wrapped itself around his fingers.  John Lambton looked at the worm for a long time and the worm looked right back at him, and it gurned, which means it pulled a horrid face.  He carried it in his hands, and kept on staring at it as he began walking away from the river, back along the path toward his home, Lambton Castle.  It was an ugly-looking creature, like an eel with a strangely-shaped head, and it seemed quite angry.  As he passed the church, John Lambton suddenly felt that he had to get rid of the worm.  There was something about it that upset him.  So he threw it down a deep, dark well by the side of the road.  He wiped the slime from his hands as he walked away, and he forgot all about it…

Journey to the Holy Land

Now, John Lambton’s mother and father loved him very much.  However, with each day that passed, he felt a stronger desire to leave England, see the rest of the world, and have adventures.  Finally, that little boy grew up into a man, he became a knight, and from that time forward was known as “Sir John Lambton”.  To seek adventure, he decided to go on crusade, which meant travelling to a distant land called Palestine, or the Holy Land.  His father, the Earl of Lambton, was sad to see him go but he gave John Lambton, a very special present, something that would protect him in battle.  It was a great silver shield called Invictus, which means it can never be broken – by anything!  Nobody really knew where the great shield Invictus came from.  People said it was over a thousand years old, but there wasn’t a scratch or a dent anywhere on its surface.  The Earl of Lambton also gave his son a mighty war-horse, strong enough to carry a knight in heavy armour.  John Lambton called his horse Bucephalus, after a famous horse from long ago.  His name means “head like an ox”.  That horse was as big and strong as an ox, and as brave as a lion.

John Lambton took the shield Invictus and travelled with his horse Bucephalus to the Holy Land, far away across land and sea.  He joined a troop of brave knights, who became his closest friends.  For many years he fought in many battles, his bravery grew, and he became famous as a soldier.  Knights ride horses but Sir John Lambton got down from his horse, Bucephalus, took off his armour, and marched on foot beside the other men, sometimes for hundreds of miles.  When the soldiers ate food and drank water, John Lambton sat and watched them from a distance.  He wouldn’t even eat a crumb or drink a drop of water until his men had eaten and drank enough.  Sometimes the soldiers had to take up picks and shovels to dig trenches and build walls.  Although John Lambton was in charge of the other men, he would still get down in the trench and dig alongside everyone else until the work was done.  So the soldiers loved him, and he became famous as a good knight and as a leader of men.

Ten years passed. With every day he spent in the Holy Land, John Lambton learned more and more about the men his army were fighting there, and he became quite sad.  He was upset because he realised that he didn’t want to fight them anymore.  He began to spend more time with the men he was supposed to be fighting.  He spoke to their wise men, who were called “philosophers”.  These men taught John Lambton many special things because they saw he was so brave and good, and the wise love the brave.  So although they were once enemies, John Lambton and the philosophers of the Holy Land now became good friends.  The knights stopped fighting and the people began to live in peace.

With no more battles, though, John Lambton decided it was time for him to return to his family home, to Lambton Castle in the Northeast of England.  He missed his mother, his father, and his friends.  This may sound strange, but it was the day he decided to stop fighting and return home that people say John Lambton became a real hero.  As he was packing his bags to leave, one of the wise men took him aside and whispered a secret in his ear.  It was a story.  He didn’t tell anyone about the secret because he didn’t feel he really understood it yet, but he kept thinking about it…

The Awful Devastation

While he was with the troop of knights, though, John Lambton had forgotten about something that he’d left behind at home.  He’d forgotten about the worm.  For ten long years, he’d been away in the Holy Land.  For ten long years the worm had been at the bottom of the well.  It lived in the dirt and mud and slime and it ate rocks – lots of rocks!  As the worm grew bigger and bigger, it swallowed bigger and bigger rocks, and it became more and more angry, until it was full of rocks and anger, and nothing else.  It grew into a great black snake with big black wings: a dragon!  It grew so big that one day it climbed out of the well, and then it crawled all over the land causing chaos and devastation, upsetting all the people.  It wrapped itself round and round cows, squashed them, and ate them.  It squashed the sheep and ate those too.  The people were so scared of the worm that as soon as they saw it coming they started running around waving their arms in the air and going “woo-woo-woo!”  When the worm was really, really angry it would wrap its tail around a big tree, rip it right out of the ground, wave it about like a big wooden club and crush the people’s houses into tiny pieces.  SMASH!  At night it would crawl all over the land causing more devastation and during the day it would wrap itself ten times around a big hill and squeeze it tight, as it went to sleep.  The people who lived near Lambton Castle started to call the place “Worm Hill” because that’s where the worm slept all day long, snoring, with smoke coming from its nostrils.

When John Lambton returned home his mother, his father, and his friends were all very happy to see him because he’d been gone for so many years, and they were proud of him because he had become a hero far away in the Holy Land.  He saw right away that something was very wrong, though, and he was very sorry for the people.  He saw the great big worm wrapped ten times around Worm Hill, squeezing it, as it slept, smoke coming from its nostrils.  He saw that the tiny worm had grown into a huge monster!  His mother and father told him what had happened, and that the worm had eaten all of the cows and sheep, and crushed all the houses.  The people told him that when they tried to cut the worm in half the two pieces would crawl back together and become one again, all fixed, good as new, as if by magic – so nobody could stop the worm.  The worm’s anger had turned into a powerful magic spell that protected it and made it very strong.  John Lambton was a hero now, though, not a little boy any more.  Deep inside he knew for sure that it was his job to stop the worm somehow and save the people – that had become his destiny.  He just didn’t know yet how he was going to do it.

John Lambton remembered something from his childhood, though.  There was a strange old woman who lived in a dark cave, hidden in the woods.  When John Lambton was a little boy, the people called her a witch.  Now, though, he realised she was actually a wise old woman.  She was a philosopher too and he knew that he needed her wisdom to help him beat the worm.  So John Lambton visited the witch’s cave, deep in the woods, late at night, when it was dark.  They both sat by the fire in her kitchen, drinking green tea, and John Lambton talked to her about his adventures far away, with the knights in Palestine.  He saw that she was wise and good, and they became friends.  So John Lambton told the wise old woman the secret that was whispered to him by the philosophers in the Holy Land.  The secret was a very special story: it was a little story within a story…

The Stranger in the Alleyway

The story goes like this…  Once upon a time, many hundreds of years ago – nearly two and half thousand years ago – there was a famous soldier, a general who led an army of ten thousand men.  His name was Xenophon.  When Xenophon was a young man, before he became famous, he was walking through the city of Athens late at night.  He walked down a very narrow street, an alleyway, between two tall buildings, and it was very dark.  Suddenly, a mysterious figure at the end of the alleyway blocked Xenophon’s path by holding out a great wooden staff or walking stick.  Xenophon took a step back in surprise.  Then the man asked him a very strange question.  He said: “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?”  He meant lots of “good things” like food, and clothes, and jewellery.  Xenophon was brave so he answered confidently: “Yes, of course, Athens has one of the finest markets in the world; you can buy whatever goods you like just a few streets from here.”  “I see”, replied the stranger, “so then can you tell me where someone must go if he wants to become a good person?”  Xenophon was startled – he didn’t know what to say.  He didn’t know the answer to that question.  So the stranger lowered his staff and stepped out of the shadows…  He introduced himself and said his name was Socrates.

He had a snub nose and a big round belly, but Xenophon recognised him immediately, and he knew he was an old soldier, a war hero, and he was also a very wise man.  In fact, some people say Socrates was the wisest man who ever lived, the greatest philosopher of them all.  Socrates said to Xenophon, “You should come with me then and together we’ll try to discover how someone can become a good person.”

So they became best friends and used to talk and talk for hours together.  Many years later, Xenophon wrote a book about all the wise things he remembered his friend saying, called the Memorabilia of Socrates.  One of the things he remembered was this…  Most people say there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world – all sorts of different things… but Socrates said they’re all wrong.  He said there’s only one truly good thing in the world, and it’s inside you, not outside.  That was one of the things Socrates used to say, and he said it to his friend Xenophon, who remembered it and wrote it down.

So that was the story of Socrates and Xenophon and it was the secret whispered in John Lambton’s ear by the philosophers of the Holy Land.  They remembered this ancient story when everyone else had forgotten it.  It puzzled him, though, because they didn’t tell him what it was called, this good thing, that was only inside and not outside.  So he had to think about it himself, for a long time…  As he was telling this story to the old woman, though, John Lambton suddenly realised the answer: the good thing inside doesn’t really have a name!  It’s two things rolled into one: wisdom and bravery combined.  So John Lambton told this to the wise old woman and she understood and agreed with him.

When she heard this secret, the old woman saw that John Lambton was a hero and that he was learning wisdom.  The wise love the brave, so the old woman helped John Lambton as best she could.  She told him another secret, a second secret whispered in his ear.  So as John Lambton left the darkness of the witch’s cave and walked through the woods, back out in the daylight, he knew that he could now defeat the worm.

The Witch’s Secret

John Lambton’s best friend was a blacksmith, a man with a hammer and an anvil who makes things out of metal.  His name was John Smith, but everyone just called him Mr. Smith or Smithy, because that was his job, and he did it very well.  So these two friends, John Lambton and John Smith, met and spoke about the devastation caused by the worm.  Then they worked together all night long, hammering metal and making things.  John Lambton made a great longsword, and he called it “Hard Belly”, after another famous sword.  He joked that it had such a tough belly that it could eat anything, and that it was going to eat a dragon for breakfast!  His friend, Smithy, made John Lambton a very special suit of armour.  He made great big metal boots and metal greaves for John Lambton’s legs…  metal gloves or gauntlets and metal bracers for his arms…  a metal breastplate to go on his chest… and a shiny metal helmet for his head… a whole suit of armour, made with love, that shone in the sunlight like the great shield Invictus.  On the breastplate Smithy had engraved a beautiful picture of a lamb’s head, the symbol of Lambton Castle.

John Lambton told Smithy that the witch was really a lady-philosopher, a wise old woman.  She’d said they must cover the metal armour in lots and lots of sharp spikes.  So that’s what they did, the two friends working all night long together, side by side.  They used lots of broken spears and swords to make sharp spikes and when they were finished the suit of armour was bristling all over with them.  When John Lambton first tried on his new suit of armour, Smithy joked that he looked like a shiny metal hedgehog or porcupine.  Then they both rested a little while and told each other jokes and stories until morning.

At daybreak, just as the sun was rising, John Lambton put his spiky suit of armour back on and picked up his mighty longsword, called Hard Belly, and the great shield Invictus.  The wise woman had explained to him that to defeat the worm he would have to stand in the River Wear and fight there so that’s where he went, riding the mighty war-horse Bucephalus.  When he reached the banks of the River Wear, John Lambton climbed down from his big horse.  He waded into the river, at the spot where he first caught the worm when it was small and he was fishing as a boy.  He stood in the water, looked upstream, and waited there patiently for a moment.  In the distance he saw the worm coiled ten times around Worm Hill, and it was just beginning to go to sleep.  Then John Lambton called out at the top of his voice “Baarooooooo!  Baarooooooo!”, a special sound the witch taught him to make.  When the worm heard that sound it knew John Lambton was there and it awoke from its slumber.  When it saw him standing in the river it was angry.  Its eyes widened and they glowed red like fire, then they narrowed and turned black with rage, and it squeezed the hill harder than it had ever squeezed before, so the hill shook, and the rocks crumbled, and cracked, and rubble tumbled down the hillside.  People say that even today there are marks on Worm Hill where the dragon squeezed it so tight.

When John Lambton saw that the worm was awake he knelt down on one knee in the river, and the water came right up to his shoulders, and flowed around him, but because his spiked armour was heavy the river didn’t wash him away.  He knelt down and leant on the hilt – the handle – of his mighty longsword for support.  He watched the great black dragon uncoil itself from the hill and slither down into the River Wear.  He saw it swimming toward him, coming faster and faster and faster downstream, as it grew angrier and angrier, rushing down the river toward him.

Now, even though his eyes should have been wide open with fear, John Lambton closed his eyes, and he relaxed inside, he calmed his mind, because he needed to concentrate and he needed to call up all of his bravery to defeat the giant worm.  Even though his hands should have been shaking with fear, they weren’t, they were calm and steady…  Even though his heart should have been pounding fast – boom, boom, boom – it was slow and steady, and its rhythm was peaceful…  Even though his muscles should have been tense, and his face should have been wrinkled with fear and worry, they weren’t…  His face was calm, and his body was relaxed.

For one minute his eyes remained closed, and he remembered what the wise women had taught him, and what the wise men in the Holy Land had said.  The witch told him to speak to his heart and to summon up his bravery and the wise men told him the secret of bravery: it was something the philosopher Socrates had said long, long ago, in the distant past.  So he spoke to his heart and he said: “Worm, you can crush me but you cannot harm me…”  John Lambton realised now that nothing could ever harm the goodness inside of him, whatever the outcome of the battle.  There was nothing the worm or anyone else could do to take away his wisdom and bravery because it came from deep within him, from his heart, right at his very centre.  He whispered those words to himself three times as he knelt in the river… and he took a deep breath in… and then he breathed out slowly… and he raised his head… and he opened his eyes, and looked up… and the dragon was upon him!

The Wyrm Battle

As the worm rushed down the River Wear toward John Lambton, one of friends was watching from the river side, high up in a tree where he’d hidden.  John Lambton’s friend was called Catweazle, and he was a bard, a man who writes songs and plays music.  Catweazle was very circumspect, which means he always paid attention and knew everything that was going on.  He saw everything that happened in the river.  He watched the whole battle unfold, and he wrote a song about it.  Other people heard his song and they wrote songs of their own, about the hero John Lambton, and the dreaded worm, and those songs have been sung for hundreds of years.  This is what Catweazle the Bard saw that day…

The worm leapt upon John Lambton but because the brave knight was kneeling deep, up to his shoulders, in the water, it couldn’t see that he was covered in spikes, like a metal hedgehog or a porcupine.  It wrapped itself round and round his body and tried to crush him with all of its might but when it did this the worm got a nasty surprise – it got spiked!  The worm cried “Rooooaaaaaar!”, which means “Ouch!”, because it hurts to grab something spiky – the suit of armour was like a big metal cactus.  The worm had to let go of John Lambton right away, but as it let go it thrashed its massive tail and knocked John Lambton off balance so he didn’t see what was coming.  The dragon opened its great big mouth as wide as it could, as if it were about to bite John Lambton or even swallow him whole… but Catweazle saw what was happenning from up in his tree and he yelled “Look out!  Look out!”  When John Lambton heard his friend, quick as lightning, he threw his great shield, called Invictus, as hard as he could, right into the dragon’s mouth.  It wedged right there in his jaws and though the dragon tried to bite down he couldn’t break the shield – it was stuck in his mouth.

So for a moment, the worm was distracted as it tried to shake the shield loose, and get it out of its mouth.  When he saw this, the knight rose out of the River Wear and he lifted his mighty longsword, Hard Belly, high over his head, and brought it down with all his strength, so powerfully that it chopped the dragon clean in half.  John Lambton was fast, though, as well as strong.  So he kept swinging his sword again and again, until the worm was sliced up into a hundred tiny pieces.  Usually the worm’s anger created a magic spell that protected it, so that when it was chopped into pieces, those pieces would be drawn back together, to join together, and fix him.  Today the worm was in the River Wear, though, and the waters were flowing fast and strong around him, and around the knight John Lambton.  So all those pieces were swept away, down the river, and into the sea, before the worm’s magic could join them back together again.

Now some people say that the dragon’s magic was so powerful that he’s still alive even though he’s in lots of little pieces spread across the bottom of the ocean.  John Lambton’s father told him, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere”, though, and he said that means the worm is gone for good and he’s never coming back.  Anyway, the people were all very relieved, and very happy.  Catweazle sang his song about the brave knight Sir John Lambton and how he tricked the great worm, and beat him, and saved the people, and their sheep and cows, and houses.  John Lambton danced.  His mother and father danced.  His friends Catweazel and Smithy danced.  Even the wise old woman, the witch, danced.  The people were all so happy they danced to Catweazle’s song.  They told John Lambton they were very proud of him indeed.  So his story became a famous legend, a great story, that people have told their children, for hundreds of years… and now you know that story, and one day perhaps you’ll be able to tell your children the legend of the Lambton Worm too.

– 🐲 –

 

Appendix: The Song

One Sunda morn young Lambton went

A-fishing in the Wear;

An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk

He thowt leuk’t vary queer.

But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was

Young Lambton cudden’t tell-

He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,

So he hoyed it doon a well

 

Chorus

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,

An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,

An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm.

 

Noo Lambton felt inclined te gan

An’ fight i’ foreign wars.

He joined a troop ov Knights that cared

For nowther woonds nor scars,

An’ off he went te Palestine

Where queer things him befel,

An varry seun forgat aboot

The queer worm i’ tha well.

But the worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,

An’ grewed an aaful size;

He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,

An greet big goggly eyes.

An’ when at neets he craaled aboot

Te pick up bits o’ news,

If he felt dry upon the road,

He’d milk a dozen coos.

This feorful worm would often feed

On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,

An’ swally little bairns alive

When they laid doon te sleep.

An when he’d eaten aall he cud

An’ he had had he’s fill,

He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail

Ten times roond Pensha Hill.

The news ov this myest aaful worm

An’ his queer gannins on

Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears

Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John.

So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast,

An’ cut ‘im in twe haalves,

An’ that seun stopped hes eatin’ bairns

An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks

On byeth sides ov the Wear

Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep

An leeved i’ mortal feor.

So let’s hev one te brave Sor John

That kept the bairns frae harm,

Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ haalves

O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Stoicism and Love: Conference Workshop Notes

Stoic_Week_2014These are my rough notes for the “Stoicism & Love” workshop I did at the Stoicism Today conference in London, 2014…

To recap from earlier: Christopher Gill mentioned that some modern commentators, such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum, question whether there’s much room for love in Stoicism, which they describe as involving “detachment” from other people.  He notes that this was not a criticism that was commonly levelled against Stoics in the ancient world, though.  The Stoics saw themselves, and I think were generally seen by others, as a philosophical school advocating a kind of affection for the rest of mankind, bound up with what is often called a philanthropic and cosmopolitan attitude.  Chris notes that the Stoics do challenge us nevertheless to love others in a way that is brutally honest and realistic about their mortality and our own, the transience of our relationships, and our lack of control over others.

So, on the one hand, many people, and possibly even a few academics, assume that Stoicism and love are somehow incompatible or at least in conflict.  On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in the very first chapter of The Meditations, describes the Stoic ideal as being “free from passions and yet full of love” – meaning irrational and unhealthy passions.  I think he later uses a similar expression to describe his own goal in life as a Stoic.  Marcus actually says he should love other people, not just superficially, but from the very bottom of his heart (Meditations, 10.1).  He seems pretty serious about the whole idea of loving mankind as if they were his brothers.  Likewise, Cicero explicitly says of the Stoic concept of love:

The Stoics actually both say that the wise man will experience love, and they define love itself as the effort to make a friendship from the semblance of beauty. (Tusculan Disputations, 4.72)

I’m pretty sure that by “the semblance of beauty” he means here inner beauty or virtue, as Socrates and the Stoics understood it.  So the Stoic Sage definitely experiences love, and presumably loves the virtuous in particular, although the “seeds” of wisdom and virtue are within everyone.  So he potentially loves all mankind in that respect.

Indeed, to start with, I’d just like to point out that philosophy, of course means “love of wisdom”, and that it seems to me the Stoics were very aware of that meaning and took it fairly literally.  Wisdom is more or less synonymous with virtue in Stoicism and love of wisdom is therefore synonymous with love of virtue, which is something the Stoics certainly appear to advocate.  Indeed, the supreme “healthy passion” they describe, rational “Joy” (chara), is basically a kind of rejoicing in the presence of virtue.  So ancient Stoicism entailed rejoicing in virtue and, literally, loving wisdom – and I think those themes are pretty clear in some of the texts, especially Marcus Aurelius.

In the translations of Marcus Aurelius I checked, incidentally, the word “love” is used about 40 times, far more than “virtue” for instance.  He talks about love all the time.  The Stoic literature is actually full of positive references to love, friendship, affection, and similar concepts.  Some of them very emphatic about the central role of “love for humanity” in Stoicism.  For example, Seneca wrote:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good.  (Seneca, On Clemency, 3.3)

Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion

  1. What does Marcus mean by being full of love, or natural affection, and yet free from (irrational or unhealthy) passions?
  2. To what extent does love or natural affection seem to play a role in Stoic philosophy?

Although some people perhaps read the Stoics in different ways on this point, Pierre Hadot thought Stoic philanthropy and cosmopolitanism were very similar to the Christian notion of brotherly-love:

It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention.  Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. (Hadot, 1998, p. 231)

There are many Stoic passages that support this, e.g., Marcus wrote:

It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble.  And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm; for he has not made your “ruling faculty” worse than it was before. (Meditations, 7.22)

So the Stoic loves others because they are his kin, as citizens of the cosmos, and rational beings.  What if they don’t love us back, though?  The Earl of Shaftesbury wrote that Stoic love was “disinterested” and not dependent on reciprocation from the people loved:

Come on, let us see now if thou canst love disinterestedly.  “Thanks my good kinsman (brother, sister, friend), for giving me so generous a part, that I can love though not beloved.” (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 108)

There’s a nice passage in Seneca (Letters, 9) where he says that the Stoic wise man naturally prefers to have friends but that he doesn’t need or crave them, and he is perfectly contented within himself if fate denies him the company of other people.

Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion

  1. How does love for others in Stoicism compare to the idea of love for others in Christianity, compassion in Buddhism, or brotherly-love in other philosophical or religious traditions?
  2. Also: How does Stoic love compare to the way romantic love tends to be portrayed in Hollywood films or in romantic novels?

The Stoics emphasise the concept of “natural affection”, the kind of love a parent has for their children, as the basis of their ethics.  Shaftesbury calls this attitude, extended to everyone as fellow citizens of the cosmos, Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind:

What is it to have Natural Affection?  Not that which is only towards relations, but towards all mankind; to be truly philanthrôpos [philanthropic, a lover of mankind], neither to scoff, nor hate, nor be impatient with them, nor abominate them, nor overlook them; and to pity in a manner and love those that are the greatest miscreants, those that are most furious against thyself in particular, and at the time when they are most furious? (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 1)

Shaftesbury compares this Stoic attitude of natural affection for mankind to the loving attitude of a mother or nurse toward a sickly child.  The Stoics often sought to emulate Zeus, as their ideal, and the paternal affection Zeus was supposed to have for mankind, his children.  Musonius Rufus therefore describes the Stoic Zeus as the patron god of friendship and familial affection.  For the Stoics, to be philanthropic, to love mankind as one’s brothers and fellow world-citizens, is to be godlike, in a sense.

Musonius famously argued that women as well as men should study Stoic philosophy.  He claimed that Stoicism would actually make women more able to properly love their children, rather than somehow repressing their affection for them.  “Who, more than she [a female Stoic] would love her children more than life?” (Lectures, 3).  Indeed there are several places where Stoics suggest it would be fundamentally unnatural to suppress feelings such as parental love, and therefore irrational to do so.  Epictetus actually says that “when a child is born it is no longer in our power not to love it or care for it”; it’s natural for parents to care, for instance, if their child is hurt (Discourses, 1.11; 1.23).  We actually have a whole Discourse (1.11) from Epictetus dedicated to the topic of “Natural Affection” or philostorgia.

This natural affection, though, is clearly to be somehow transformed in Stoicism.  Epictetus asked his students: “How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate?” (Discourses, 3.24).  His answer was that Stoics should become affectionate in a manner consistent with the fundamental rules and doctrines of their philosophy.  In particular, we’re to love while bearing in mind the distinction between what’s up to us and what is not.  He also suggests that if what we’re calling “love” or “affection” makes us enslaved to our passions and miserable, then it’s not “good” for us, and that’s a sign something is wrong.   Put another way, this presumably means that Stoics should love in accord with the “reserve clause”.  So we should wish that others flourish and become wise and virtuous, but we should do so lightly, completely accepting that our wish may not be realised – accepting them as they are, in other words, warts and all.

Exercise: Love as Acceptance versus Well-Wishing

The Stoics wanted others to flourish, become wise and virtuous,

  1. Repeat the word “love” to yourself.
  2. Contemplate first, the attitude of love as acceptance, accepting yourself despite your imperfections, seeing your current situation as the only one possible given your nature and your past environment and experiences.
  3. Next contemplate the attitude of love as one of wishing yourself well, wanting yourself to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, now and in the future, fate permitting.
  4. Now try to do the same for another person, begin by contemplating love as acceptance of their flaws, even their follies or vices, etc.
  5. Now try to contemplate love as wishing for them to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, fate permitting.

So where does that leave us?  A good summary is in the article “Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves”, by William O. Stephens, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14, 193-210, 1996.

The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way.  His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved.  The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones.  Rather, the Stoic’s love and natural affection are tempered by reason.  His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to [psychological] torment.

Some of the key concepts here:

  1. The Stoic ideal of wisdom and virtue definitely included loving other people – the Sage loves others and seeks friendship.
  2. The Stoic Sage’s love is unconditional; it doesn’t require reciprocation, which would be an “indifferent” for Stoics because it’s not up to us.
  3. The sort of love the Stoic Sage experiences is neither unhealthy nor excessive but healthy and consistent with virtue.
  4. This sort of love is inherently realistic about the transience of external things and the mortality of those loved.
  5. The love of the Stoic is fundamentally rational, meaning it’s consistent with reason and doesn’t lead to irrational behaviour.

Exercise: Hierocles and Metta Bhavana

The Stoic philosopher Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described psychological practices for expanding oikeiôsis, our sense of “affinity” for others.  He says our relationships can be represented as a series of concentric circles, radiating out from ourselves and our closest kin.  Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”, he said, voluntarily reducing psychological distance in their relationships.  He even suggests verbal techniques, not unlike calling acquaintances “friend” or calling close friends “brother”.  Hierocles elsewhere recommends treating our brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our hands and feet.  Zeno’s saying that a friend is “another self”, perhaps likewise encourages us to take others deeper into the circle of our affinity and natural affection.  Hierocles’ comments about oikeiôsis might be turned into a contemplative exercise.

There’s a popular Buddhist meditation exercise called metta bhavana, which means “expanding loving-kindness”.  We might use this as a basis for developing Hierocles’ advice into a modern contemplative practice.

  1. It helps to prepare by choosing your examples in advance to visualise in a moment: yourself, a loved one, an acquaintance, an enemy,
  2. Close your eyes; take a few moments to relax and focus your attention inward.
  3. Picture a circle of light surrounding your own body and imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of rational self-love or affection toward yourself as a being capable of wisdom and virtue.  If you like, repeat a phrase such as “May I flourish and be happy” to yourself, to help focus on this attitude.
  4. Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass a member of your family, a loved one or close friend, whom you now project natural affection toward, as if they were somehow part of your own body.  Focus on the seeds of virtue within them, and wish them well, perhaps repeating a phrase like “May you flourish and be happy”, while accepting that this is beyond your direct control.
  5. Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass an acquaintance you encounter in daily life, toward whom you normally feel more neutral, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project feelings of natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
  6. Again, let the circle expand further to include even someone you dislike, perhaps someone who sees you as an “enemy”, and focusing as much as possible on their positive qualities or virtues, wish them well, picturing the sphere of your affection spreading to include them.
  7. Now let the circle encompass all of you together, allowing your feelings of affection to spread over the whole group.
  8. Imagine the circle now progressively growing to envelop your surrounding area and finally the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing your feelings of rational affection to spread out to every other member of the human race, developing a sense of kinship with them insofar as they possess reason and therefore the capacity for progressing toward wisdom.

Try to continue this attitude throughout your daily activity.  Seneca argued that expanding natural affection into a philanthropic attitude that encompasses the rest of mankind teaches us to love more philosophically, without over-attachment to any specific individual.  He goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters, 63).  The Sage is not infatuated with anyone.  He loves everyone as much as he is able, while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.

Completing Stoic Week 2014

Stoic Week 2014 Handbook Cover Design by Rocio De TorresPlease remember to complete these questionnaires following Stoic Week!

It’s really important that we collect data from participants in Stoic Week.  Please help by filling out these online forms again after you read the Handbook.  It will only take a few minutes.  Previous participants have told us they find it very interesting and useful to fill out the questionnaires and monitor their own progress.

Click on each link below in turn to open the form in a new browser window.  Please remember to use exactly the same name and email address for all questionnaires and to click “submit” when you’ve entered your responses.  You should receive an email confirming your responses for each form, within the next week.  This will also include some interesting notes on your scores and comparisons with previous student averages for the SABS.

  1. Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS)
    This scale was developed by our research team and has gone through various revisions.  The items have been checked with academics for their relevance to Stoicism and revised based on feedback from hundreds of previous participants.
  2. The Flourishing Scale (FS)
    This brief scale provides a measure of general psychological wellbeing, such as your sense of having a meaningful life.
  3. Scale of Positive and Negative Experiences (SPANE)
    This brief scale measure a range of different emotions, like joy, contentment, anger, sadness, etc.
  4. Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)
    This is another brief scale, designed to measure your overall level of contentment with life.

If possible, please also complete the brief course evaluation form as well to give us your feedback on the course.

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this!

Stoic Week 2014 Handbook (PDF) and MP3 Files

Stoic Week 2014 Handbook Cover Design by Rocio De TorresStoic Week 2014 begins on Monday (25th November 2014).  We now have over 2,200 people enrolled on the course via our Modern Stoicism elearning website.  However, if you’re unable to register on the elearning site or simply prefer an alternative, all of the resources you need are now available freely on the web.

1. Before you Begin

It’s really important that we collect data from participants in Stoic Week.  Please help by filling out these online forms before you read the Handbook.  It will only take a few minutes.  Previous participants have told us they find it very interesting and useful to fill out the questionnaires and monitor their own progress.

Click on each link below in turn to open the form in a new browser window.  Please remember to use exactly the same name and email address for all questionnaires and to click “submit” when you’ve entered your responses.  You should receive an email confirming your responses for each form, within the next week.  This will also include some interesting notes on your scores and comparisons with previous student averages for the SABS.

  1. Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS)
    This scale was developed by our research team and has gone through various revisions.  The items have been checked with academics for their relevance to Stoicism and revised based on feedback from hundreds of previous participants.
  2. The Flourishing Scale (FS)
    This brief scale provides a measure of general psychological wellbeing, such as your sense of having a meaningful life.
  3. Scale of Positive and Negative Experiences (SPANE)
    This brief scale measure a range of different emotions, like joy, contentment, anger, sadness, etc.
  4. Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)
    This is another brief scale, designed to measure your overall level of contentment with life.

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this!

2. The Handbook and Resources

Here it is: The one and only Stoic Week 2014 Handbook, in its PDF format.  You can upload PDF files to Kindle and most EPUB readers, incidentally, and they’re easy to share and read on mobile devices, although on a phone, you may find it more readable in landscape mode.  There’s also the Stoic Self-Monitoring Record Sheet, which is optional.

Stoic Week 2014 Handbook (PDF)

Stoic Self-Monitoring Record Sheet (PDF)

The MP3 audio files are also available from this page on the Stoicism Today website.  Some people have told us they find it tricky to play MP3 files on iPhones or other Apple devices.  As we understand it, though, if you just import these files to your iTunes library you should be able to play them on iPhones, etc.

The Stoic Week 2014 Handbook is Now Available

Stoic Week 2014 Handbook Cover Design by Rocio De TorresThe Stoic Week 2014 Handbook is now available!  You can read it online in HTML or download the PDF version for mobile devices, etc., by visiting the Modern Stoicism elearning site created by the Stoicism Today team.

The Stoic Week 2014 Handbook on Modern Stoicism

We’re releasing the Handbook in advance so people have the opportunity to read the initial sections before Monday, when Stoic Week officially starts.

Please make sure you complete the online questionnaires before you begin reading the Handbook, though.  It’s really important that we collect data from participants in Stoic Week.  It will only take a few minutes.  Previous participants have told us they find it very interesting and useful to fill out the questionnaires and monitor their own progress.

Click on each link below in turn to open the form in a new browser window.  Please remember to use exactly the same name and email address for all questionnaires and to click “submit” when you’ve entered your responses.  You should receive an email confirming your responses for each form, within the next week.  This will also include some interesting notes on your scores and comparisons with previous student averages for the SABS.

  1. Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS)
    This scale was developed by our research team and has gone through various revisions.  The items have been checked with academics for their relevance to Stoicism and revised based on feedback from hundreds of previous participants.
  2. The Flourishing Scale (FS)
    This brief scale provides a measure of general psychological wellbeing, such as your sense of having a meaningful life.
  3. Scale of Positive and Negative Experiences (SPANE)
    This brief scale measure a range of different emotions, like joy, contentment, anger, sadness, etc.
  4. Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)
    This is another brief scale, designed to measure your overall level of contentment with life.

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this!