Tag Archives: stoicism

Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

EpicurusNB: This is a draft, I’m still adding the final sections.

In the surviving Discourses, Epictetus is shown discussing the rival philosophical school of Epicureanism at considerable length with his Stoic students.  Typically his comments are scathingly critical of Epicureanism.  He even appears to criticize some of his students for failing to attain Stoic virtue by accusing them of being mere “Epicureans”.  Diogenes Laertius, one of our few sources for Epicurean doctrines, begins his chapter on Epicurus in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers with a list of criticisms and allegations made against him by the Stoics.  He adds: “Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him”, which is definitely in accord with the tone of criticism we find in the surviving Discourses.

Some of Epictetus’ comments are scattered, and of those some are more direct than others.  However, there are also three Discourses in which he more explicitly and directly critiques the philosophy of Epicurus.  

  1. In answer to Epicurus (1.23)
  2. Against Epicureans and Academics (2.20)
  3. A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean (3.7)

This is probably fairly consistent with Stoic teachings in general, which appear to have become increasingly focused on the criticism of Epicureanism from at least the time of Chrysippus onward.  Diogenes Laertius tells us that, among his numerous books, Chrysippus wrote two entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, which definitely sound like they may have contained systematic critiques of the Epicurean position.

Often criticisms of Epicurean philosophy merge with more general criticisms made against those who treat pleasure as the goal of life.  In the time of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, this probably began with attacks against the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and later expanded to encompass the teachings of Epicurus.  However, it also extends more generally to non-philosophers who treat pleasure as if it were the most important thing in life.  Some proponents of Epicureanism will object that this is a caricature of his philosophical teachings.  However, the Epicurean teachings were notoriously ambiguous, or even contradictory, and Epicurus and his followers do seem at times to have professed doctrines that sound like those being attacked by the Stoics, including the sort of hedonism Epictetus is so keen to dispute for the sake of his students.

Epictetus’ key criticisms of Epicurus can be summed up as follows:

  1. Like the Academic Skeptics, Epicurus frequently contradicts himself by taking for granted in practice assumptions that he claims to reject in his philosophical doctrines.
  2. If he rejects the concept of fellowship between mankind, or a moral duty to others, then what’s motive for writing so many books and teaching his philosophy to others?
  3. If he really wanted to obtain “security” for his own tranquillity from other men then, paradoxically, he’d actually be better to teach them Stoicism rather than Epicureanism, because that would better serve his own self-interest.

Typically he employs a method that’s modelled on Socratic questioning, seeking to expose internal contradictions in his opponents’ views, especially between their words and actions. Hence, this isn’t an abstract or nit-picking debate. Epictetus is very much focused on the day-to-day practical implications of following one philosophy over another. Likewise, it’s sometimes said that he’s misinterpreting the Epicureans or being unfair to them. However, it’s likely that he was more familiar with Epicurean doctrines, and their practical way of life, than we are today. He probably had many Epicureans visit his school. Indeed, in one of the Discourses described below, we can actually see the record of a Socratic exchange between Epictetus and an Epicurean philosopher, which apparently took place in public before his students.

In answer to Epicurus

In this Discourse (1.23), Epictetus begins by claiming that Epicurus has “set our good in the husk which we wear”, the physical body, and that by doing so he’s led into contradiction when he also tries to profess the view that humans are by nature social beings.  We’re told Epicurus taught that “we should neither admire nor accept anything that is detached from the nature of the good”, something the Stoics would emphatically agree with.  However, we’re also told that Epicurus rejected the view that affection for our own children is a natural instinct, which the Stoics argue forms the basis of our social nature, and the virtue of justice.  For Epicureans, although friendship is important, it’s typically portrayed as being of only instrumental value, i.e., a means to the end of preserving one’s own mind in pleasant tranquillity.  Sometimes love or friendship may cause more turmoil than calm, and in these cases Epicureans seem to shun relationships.  For that reason, incidentally, Seneca also accuses Epicureanism of encouraging superficial or “fair-weather” friendships.

Epicurus actually taught that the wise man will not raise a family and that his followers should emulate this way of life, which he apparently followed himself in practice.  He apparently argued that by marrying and having children, one makes oneself particularly vulnerable to disturbance and emotional suffering on their behalf, so it is better to avoid this if you want to live a life of tranquillity.  Compare this to Socrates, the Stoics’ supreme role-model, who reputedly told his friends that he remained married to his notoriously shrewish wife, Xanthippe because she offered him the opportunity to strengthen his character through patience and self-discipline in the face of provocation.  Epictetus ridicules the obvious inconsistency of Epicurus in this regard because he was understood to be very fond of his favourite house-slave, nicknamed “Mouse” and concerned for his welfare.  If he really believed that we should avoid marrying and having children to minimise potential for emotional disturbance, then to be truly consistent Epicurus should have also avoided becoming emotionally attached to his friends and slaves.  Epictetus says, strikingly, here that “once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love it or to care for it.”  He’s talking about the normal state of affairs of course, and I’m sure he’d admit that there are some exceptions to this natural inclination.

He goes on to say that Epicurus, for the same reasons that he gives against marrying and having children, also advises his followers not to engage in politics.  By this he means generally being involved in public life, the affairs of the city, for the sake of one’s community, and not just what we mean by professional politics today.  Epicurus, of course, withdrew to a private garden outside the city walls of Athens where he enjoyed the company of a small circle of friends, who discussed philosophy among themselves in seclusion.  One of the mottoes of the Epicurean garden, according to Plutarch, was actually “live in obscurity” (lathe biōsas).  We might say: “keep your head down and stay out of trouble.”  By contrast, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down the public colonnade known as the Stoa Poekile, on the edge of the Athenian marketplace.  He probably did this, partly, in emulation of Socrates who also taught philosophy in the agora.  Members of the public, philosophers of other schools, and politicians, could approach them there and engage them in debate over the nature of philosophical questions, particularly ethical questions of a practical nature.  Epictetus appears to imply that Epicurus’ advice was rather than to marry and have children or to engage in public life, as the Stoics advised their students, one should “live among men as though you were a fly among flies”, meaning in a detached manner, lacking any sense of natural affection or affiliation toward other people.

Epictetus attacks Epicurus quite ferociously for hypocrisy in this regard, partly because he ignores the fact that affection for own children is completely natural, and therefore the basis of social ethics, according to Stoicism.  Even domestic animals like sheep, or wild animals like wolves, do not feel indifference to their own offspring.  (The Stoics, incidentally, classified people as having lost their essential humanity and degenerating to the level of either domestic or wild animals if they’d succumbed to the vices of hedonism or aggression, respectively.)  In ancient Greece, as in the tale of Oedipus, unwanted or sickly infants were sometimes left outdoors by their parents to die of exposure.  So Epictetus concludes his Socratic charge of contradiction and hypocrisy, against Epicurus, as follows:

Come now, who follows your advice when he sees his child fallen on the ground and crying?  Why, in my opinion, your mother and your father, even if they had divined that you were going to say such things, would not have left you to die of exposure!

Against Epicureans and Academics

In this Discourse (2.20), Epictetus begins by reminding his students of several well-established criticisms made against Academic Skepticism.  His main objection is that the Skeptics contradict themselves by forwarding arguments that take for granted some of the assumptions they’re trying to undermine.  He soon shifts his focus onto Epicurus, though, whom he accuses of essentially the same philosophical error.  

His first target is the claim, which he attributes to the Epicurean school, that there is no “natural fellowship” among mankind.  Epictetus claims that Epicurus  necessarily contradicts himself by making use of precisely that assumption in practice.  Some modern proponents of Epicureanism seem to question whether this was indeed part of the ancient creed.  However, ancient commentators on Epicureanism generally take it for granted that this was one of their best-known doctrines.  Epictetus actually quotes Epicurus as saying:

Be not deceived, men, nor led astray, nor mistaken; there is no natural fellowship with one another among rational beings; believe me.  Those who say the contrary are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasons.

“Why do you care then?”, asks Epictetus.  Why do you teach?  Why did you labour day and night to write so many books of philosophy for others to read?  If we are deceived in this way, how does it harm your ability to enjoy peace of mind, Epicurus?  There seems to be a conflict here between the values being taught and the very act of teaching them to others.  In fact, Epicurus would attain more “security” for his pleasant way of life from other men, if he allows them to be “deceived”, as he puts it.  The goal of Epicureanism is supposed to be to preserve one’s lasting pleasure, or peace of mind, at all costs.  Epictetus is really rolling two criticisms into one here.  Epicurus’ actions seem hypocritical.  However, paradoxically, it also seems like anyone sincerely embracing Epicureanism would be better off to teach Stoicism to others, and the doctrine of natural affection toward mankind, because that would ultimately be more in their self-interest.

Why do you care, then?  Allow us to be deceived.  Will you far any the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that we do have a natural fellowship with one another, and that we ought by all means to guard it?  Nay, your position will be much better and safer.  […] What do you care how the rest of mankind will think about these matters, or whether their ideas be sound or not?  For what have you to do with us?  Come, do you interest yourself in sheep because they allow themselves to be shorn by us, and milked, and finally to be butchered and cut up?  Would it not be desirable if men could be charmed and bewitched into slumber by the Stoics and wlos themselves to be shorn and milked by you and your kind?  Is not this something that you ought to have said to your fellow Epicureans only and to have concealed your views from outsiders, taking special pains to persuade them, of all people, that we are by nature born with a sense of fellowship, and that self-control is a good thing, so that everything may be kept for you?

The Stoics believed that all men deserve our consideration, as brothers, and we should view ourselves as all citizens of a single state, consisting of the whole cosmos.  Epicurus at times appears to completely reject any fellowship among mankind or mutual obligation to benefit others.  However, even if he qualifies that by arguing that fellowship should be maintained selectively, for pragmatic reasons, it seems to cause further difficulties.

Or ought we to maintain this fellowship with some, but not others?  With whom, then, ought we to maintain it?  With those who reciprocate by maintaining it with us, or with those who are transgressors of it?  And who are greater transgressors of it than you Epicureans who have set up such doctrines?

In much the same way that the Skeptics try to defy nature by denying the reliability of our eyes and ears, Epicurus defies nature by denying our natural affections, and drive to benefit other humans.

A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean

In this Discourse (3.7), an actual conversation between Epictetus and a follower of Epicurus is reported. That’s important to note because sometimes, due to the notorious ambiguity of Epicurean teachings, people sometimes want to question whether Epictetus really understood Epicureanism.  It’s likely, however, that he had access to more Epicurean teachings than we do today.  Scholars believe Epictetus possessed rare copies of early Greek Stoic texts, which he read to students and was discussing with them in the surviving Discourses.  These may have been the books of Zeno, and more likely some of those by Chrysippus.  These quite probably contained references to early Epicurean teachings.  However, Epictetus would also have known many late Roman Epicureans personally.  As this Discourse proves, Epicureans visited him and apparently discussed philosophy in his school, in the presence of students like Arrian, who recorded this conversation.  So it’s probably unfairly dismissive to question his familiarity with the philosophy.  Epictetus probably knew a great deal more about the teachings and way of life endorsed by Epicureans than we ever will.

We’re told from the outset that the Imperial Bailiff or “Corrector”, a high-ranking government official, “who was an Epicurean”, came to visit Epictetus.  Epictetus welcomed the Epicurean by presenting himself as a relative laymen with regard to the teachings of Epicurus, in the presence of an expert, and seeking to learn more by questioning him.  That’s striking because it obviously resembles “Socratic irony”, the way Socrates would act as if he were ignorant, rather than play the part of a guru himself, and instead question his visitors in depth about their philosophical and ethical beliefs.  Epicurus himself did the opposite of Socrates and happily claimed to be an enlightened sage, which arguably led his followers to treat him as a guru figure.  (They celebrated his birthday every year, kept pictures of him, and memorised his teachings verbatim, etc.)  By contrast, the Stoics believed that the wise man is “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix”, a mythical bird supposedly born every five hundred years.  Neither Zeno nor any of the founders of the Stoa apparently claimed to be wise themselves.  Instead they seem to have classed themselves as fools, who were merely helping other fools to approach wisdom.  Seneca described himself as like a patient in one bed describing how his therapy is going to the patient in the bed beside him.  That attitude toward experts, or wise men, was a major practical difference between the Stoic and Epicurean schools, which shaped their respective discourses about philosophy.  Epictetus refers to himself here as a “layman” in philosophy, whereas Epicurus called himself a sage.  By contrast, although we may read an account of him explicitly denying that he is wise, after his death it appears that Epictetus may have been considered sage-like by his followers.

Once again, Epictetus then engages in what’s obviously a Socratic-style questioning, this time of his Epicurean guest.  He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.  However, Epictetus points out that this stands in direct contradiction to the Epicurean doctrine, which he describes as saying that: “pleasure of soul is pleasure in the things of the body” because “then they become matters of prime importance, and the true nature of the good.”

Epictetus also mentions another well-established criticism of Epicureanism, one also discussed by Cicero and others.  Epicurus, he says, does not condemn theft as wicked but says that it only becomes so because of the pain, or displeasure, caused by actually being caught, or worry about being caught.  It’s the pleasure that comes from avoidance of pain that’s the supreme goal of life, and avoiding theft and other vicious acts is merely a means to this end.  So Epictetus poses the obvious question: what if “the stealing be done secretly, safely, without anybody’s knowledge”?  There are many instances where we have the opportunity to act unethically without any risk whatsoever of detection.  Epictetus mentions also that if he happens to have “influential friends in Rome”, powerful friends, then an Epicurean may have very little motive to behave himself, being placed above fear of reprisals by his social status and connections in society.  If he sincerely believes that pleasure is his own highest good, for the sake of which he would be willing to sacrifice everything else, then there are bound to be many situations where this can be pursued without the fear of being caught that Epicurus claims should be sufficient to keep us from acting antisocially.

Epictetus goes on to mention another familiar response to the Epicureans: that they aspire to act virtuously but doing so is in conflict with the problematic ethical doctrines that they claim to follow.  He jokes that whereas the Stoics aspire to noble doctrines, although they sometimes fall short of them and lapse into base actions, the Epicureans aspire to base doctrines even when they engage in noble deeds.  He’s basically saying to his Epicurean guest: “You’re better than this.”  Your actions are good, but your philosophy isn’t fit for purpose because if you followed it consistently you should potentially be doing things that go against your own moral conscience.  There’s a contradiction between your philosophy and your way of life.

He then proceeds to discuss yet another familiar criticism of Epicureanism by posing the question very bluntly: “In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean state?”  Epicureanism often appeals to individuals, it’s self-interested in a particular way, but it’s far less appealing to imagine being surrounded by people adopting the same values, e.g., that your life and wellbeing would only be of value to them as long as it was consistent with their goal of preserving their own lasting pleasure and peace of mind.  Epictetus says the Epicureans say: “people ought not to marry”, nor have children, nor “perform the duties of a citizen”, i.e., participate in society.  If everyone embraced this philosophy, Epictetus says, society would simply collapse.  There could be no genuinely Epicurean state.  “Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the state, destructive to the family…  Drop these doctrines, man!”  We should look for philosophical doctrines that are consistent with our way of life, and help us to flourish and become good citizens.  That’s what we would want from other people around us.

The persuasive power of vice is so strong already – it’s the biggest challenge we face in life.  Why then, says Epictetus, embrace philosophical doctrines that potentially make this temptations seem even more powerful by judging our supreme good to reside in pleasure?  Pleasure, he says, should be subordinate to virtue, and not the other way around.  The Epicurean bailiff apparently claims he has power over other man, and influence at the Emperor’s court.  However, Epictetus concludes by saying this is not true leadership but that comes from the authority of someone like Socrates, whose wisdom and virtue make men want to emulate him as a role-model.

Scattered remarks by Epictetus

Elsewhere in the surviving DiscoursesEpictetus uses Epicureanism as a kind of insult against some of his students:

Do you not realize the kind of men they are whose language you have just uttered?  That they are Epicureans and blackguards?  And yet, while doing their deeds and holding their opinions, you recite to us the words of Zeno and Socrates? (3.24)

Elsewhere he makes a similar remark:

Why did you call yourself a Stoic?  Observe yourselves thus in your actions and you will find out to what sect of the philosophers you belong.  You will find that most of you are Epicureans, some few Peripatetics, but these without any backbone; fore wherein do you in fact show that you consider virtue equal to all things else, or even superior?  But as for a Stoic, show me one if you can!  (2.19)

In one of the surviving fragments (14), he seems to be saying that in contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics hold that “pleasure is not something natural, but a sequel of things that are natural, as justice, self-control, and freedom.”  Epictetus asks why the soul doesn’t take pleasure in its own goods  but rather in the inferior goods of the body.  He says, though, that nature has given us a sense of shame, which causes us to blush at vice, and this prevents him from “laying down pleasure as the good and end of life.”

But if I put what is mine in one scale, and what is honourable in the other, then the statement of Epicurus assumes strength, in which he declares that “the honourable is either nothing at all, or at best only what people hold in esteem.” (2.22)

He claims in another Discourse (2.23) that Epicurus has said that the flesh is the  most excellent part of man.  Epictetus claims that when Epicurus was dying and wrote “We are spending what is our last and at the same time a happy day?”, and when he wrote so many books to benefit his followers, it was not his flesh that prompted him to do so but his moral purpose (prohairesis).  We would have to act like we were blind to ignore the presence of a higher faculty within us than that of physical sensation.

If Epicurus should come and say that the good ought to be in the flesh, again the explanation becomes lengthy, and you must be told what is the principal faculty within us, and what our substantial, and what our essential, nature is.  Since it is not probable that the good of a snail lies in its flesh?  But take our own case, Epicurus: what more masterful faculty do you yourself possess?  What is that thing within you which takes counsel, which examines into all things severally, which after examining the flesh itself, decides that it is the principal matter?  And why do you light a lamp and toil in our behalf, and write such quantities of books?  Is it that we may not fail to know the truth?  Who are we?  And what are we to you?  And so the argument becomes lengthy.  (1.21)

Stoicism Defends Itself (Draft)

[This is just a first draft so don’t worry too much if there are some typos or bits you don’t agree with — I’ll probably just change it later!]Brace Yourselves Meme

When people first begin studying Stoicism it’s inevitably not long before they encounter debate involving various criticisms of the philosophy.  All of these criticisms are, in a sense, legitimate.  Of course, it’s natural and healthy for us to engage in these sort of philosophical discussions, especially if we can shed some light on things for ourselves or others.  However, the majority of these criticisms – at least the ones I’ve heard over the past ten or fifteen years – tend to be based upon simple misconceptions about Stoicism, which can be answered fairly easily if we take the time to do so.  I’ve therefore chosen to try to summarise the main arguments in one article and to provide an overview of them and the way I’d normally tend to reply.  I don’t really have space here to go into all of these matters in a great deal of depth – so some people are bound to find my replies insufficient as they stand – but I think the brief comments below may provide a good indication of some ways to answer the criticisms I’m talking about and I’m sure others can develop them further.

In the Beginning was the Word

The most common source of misconceptions about Stoicism is simply the word itself.  “Stoicism” is a homonym: it sounds identical, and is spelt the same, as another word, which nevertheless means something fundamentally quite different.  There are two different things called by this name, in other words.  The difference is usually indicated by capitalisation.

  1. The word “Stoicism” with a capital “S” refers to an ancient Greek school of philosophy, defined by its central ethical tenet: that “virtue” (or excellence of character) is the only true good.
  2. The word “stoicism” with a small “s” is a modern expression, referring to a personality trait, which involves calmness in the face of adversity but is also often taken to imply a lack of emotion in general.

Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that both things are called by the same name.  The personality trait is named “stoicism” because of the ancient school of philosophy.  However, the relationship between these concepts is tenuous and quite problematic.  

The ancient philosophical school of Stoicism does not, in fact, advocate being “stoic”, in the sense of being unemotional, as we shall see.  It’s also misleading because people talk about having a naturally “stoic” temperament whereas “Stoicism” consists of a philosophical world-view and set of values.  Someone may have a “stoic” personality but hold completely different beliefs from someone who is “Stoic” in the philosophical sense of the word.  In particular, people today often describe someone as “stoic” who believes that something genuinely bad has happened to them, perhaps bankruptcy or divorce, but keeps a “stiff upper-lip” despite their upset.  That person would not be a “Stoic” in the philosophical sense, though, because, as we’ll see, although he may rationally “prefer” not to be bankrupt or divorced, a Stoic philosopher would not judge these things to be intrinsically bad to begin with.

Philosophy, what Philosophy?

By far the most popular and widely-read book on Stoicism is The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  It’s a wonderful book and represents Marcus’ attempts to train himself in Stoic practices, while recording his maxims and reflections in the form of a contemplative journal.  However, it’s therefore not a systematic treatise on Stoic philosophy.  Because Marcus was writing for himself, in a kind of aphoristic style, he did not generally take time to make his philosophical assumptions explicit.  Nevertheless, Stoicism was famous in the ancient world for its highly systematic nature.  Scholars who are familiar with the doctrines and arguments of Stoic philosophy, and its technical terminology, easily spot that Marcus is working within that system.  However, for most readers this is simply not apparent and so I’ve heard intelligent people say that Marcus was just writing down his “random musings” and nothing more.  For that reason, many individuals, having read only The Meditations and not any other Stoic texts or modern commentaries, naturally tend to assume that Stoicism is a loosely-defined set of ideas.  The opposite is the case, though.  

Stoicism is a tightly-integrated, formal, philosophical system.  It was founded in 301 BC in Athens by Zeno of Citium and Marcus, who happens to be pretty much the last famous Stoic we find in history, died in 180 AD.  So the Stoic school of philosophy survived for almost 500 years, half a millennium, as a living, practical and theoretical tradition.  Thousands of books were apparently written on Stoicism in the ancient world, although less than 1% of that literature survives today.  Zeno himself was known for the “laconic” brevity of both his sayings and arguments.  However, Chrysippus, the second head (“scholarch”) of the Stoic school, engaged in much more elaborate philosophical arguments than Zeno and supposedly wrote over 700 books (although perhaps short books, more like essays).  I suspect that he probably felt that it was necessary to elaborate upon the doctrines of the school in this way in order to defend them against equally elaborate criticisms of Stoicism, which were taught and published by philosophers aligned with other schools of philosophy, particularly the Skeptics of the Platonic Academy.  In any case, Stoicism was always renowned as a highly sophisticated and coherent system of philosophy, with a complex technical vocabulary and an extensive armamentarium of practical psychological strategies at its disposal.  Criticisms often fail to take account of that by interpreting passages in isolation, without reference to the rest of the philosophical framework on which individual ideas or practices depend.

Why Just Pick on the Stoics?

Another common pattern that emerges when we look at criticisms of Stoicism is that they’re often, on closer inspection, highly skeptical arguments, of a very broad nature.  They would would apply much more generally than their author is letting on.  For example, a speaker at our 2015 conference on Stoicism forwarded the criticism that Stoic practices should not be taught in schools because they could be exploited to make children take on excessive responsibility for their emotional distress, and thereby disguise the role of the environment and socio-political factors.  However, it seems to me that this argument does not specifically apply to Stoicism but to more or less any form of resilience-building or psychological self-improvement whatsoever.  It’s much less tempting accept such an argument when we realise its scope extends so widely.  

Likewise, as we’ll see below, Stoicism is also often criticised because its ethical doctrines can’t be conclusively proven with either philosophical or empirical arguments.  However, that’s also true of ethics in general, including ethical doctrines based on Christian, Buddhist, Marxist, humanist, and all other religions and philosophies.  Of course, just noticing this problem with the criticism isn’t sufficient to answer the criticism.  However, for many people, it does weaken its appeal somewhat.  It’s also often the case that criticisms of Stoicism are so general in scope that they would undermine beliefs that the speaker is already committed to holding themselves, leaving them in a position of self-contradiction, although this may not be apparent at first glance.  

Many of the criticisms of Stoicism that I’ve heard try to argue that it can’t be healthy or effective psychologically, on the basis of some objection to the cognitive theory of emotions.  However, cognitive-behavioural therapy is based on a very similar model of emotion and employs similar strategies.  CBT has proven its effectiveness in many hundreds of highly-sophisticated clinical trials.  The fact that it’s safe and beneficial, overall for a range of conditions, is pretty much beyond reasonable doubt now.  Yet sometimes criticisms of Stoicism ignore this overlap and, in certain cases, if we took them seriously they should lead us to discount something that we know works, from empirical evidence, which would be an absurd conclusion.  Questions about the effectiveness of Stoic strategies as a therapy for the emotions can only be settled by consulting relevant scientific evidence because it’s an empirical question, not a purely philosophical one.  Armchair discussions about the effectiveness of therapies should set our alarm bells ringing.  This kind of idle speculation is surprisingly common, though.  It’s more obvious that these arguments are vacuous if we consider how they would fare in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy rather than just Stoic therapy.

The Unproven Ethics of Stoicism

As mentioned above, one of the most common criticisms of Stoicism is that its ethical doctrines cannot be philosophically proven.  Although the ancient Stoics believed that they could provide rigorous proofs of their main conclusions, and defend them against radical ethical skepticism, we’re told they were mistaken.  Now, funnily enough, there’s undoubtedly some validity to this criticism.  However, it has to be understood in the following context: no philosophical or non-philosophical system of ethics has ever provided a conclusive proof of its doctrines.  So this extremely-skeptical criticism would apply not just to Stoicism but to ethics in general, and often to ethical assumptions held by the person making the criticism.  Even if the ethics of Stoicism can’t be proven conclusively, many people obviously feel that it can be shown to be consistent with their own deepest ethical convictions, on reflection, and to lead to a coherent ethical world-view.  That’s often enough for them and is arguably all that we can ask for in terms of a philosophical justification for ethics.  

It’s sometimes also claimed that Stoic Ethics depends on the assumption that a provident God exists and that without this premise, which many modern readers reject, its ethical system loses its foundation.  However, as we’ll see below, the Stoics were pantheists who believed in a “philosophers’’ god”, radically different from the Zeus of Greek mythology or the Judeo-Christian Jehovah.  The Stoics were also materialists of a sort and their God is synonymous with Nature as a whole.   Many people who reject the idea of the Christian God or the supernatural beings described in Greek mythology (assuming we take it literally) would be more willing to accept the notion that Nature as a whole can be viewed as an active process, from which certain values might somehow be derived.  The main issue at stake is whether Nature can be viewed in teleological terms, as having some kind of ideal or goal, in reference to  which other values could be established.  Although that’s a view that many people reject in theory, it’s worth noting that most people in their daily lives act as if they were committed to the assumption that things naturally have an optimum or ideal state.  For example, we would find it very difficult to suspend any thinking that employs the concept of something (ourselves and other people included) being “helped” or “harmed” by events.  However, that way of talking, thinking, and acting arguably betrays the fact that we’re already committed to a world-view in which there’s a desirable state that things “should” be allowed to be in.  Of course, the Stoics would argue that we’re all wrong to think that physical injury, financial loss, and attacks on our reputation are genuinely “harmful” but I believe that’s an easier step to take than trying to argue against the extreme form of skepticism that denies the possibility of any meaningful goal in nature whatsoever.  To put it another way: although this type of ethical skepticism might seem difficult to counter, I don’t think many people are really able to view the world that way in practice anyway.  For the Stoics, Nature’s goal for man is “virtue”, for him to excel and flourish in his use of practical reason.  So very simply: virtue helps him and vice harms him: everything else is “indifferent” in this regard.

Moreover, the Stoics actually seldom appeal to theological premises, about the existence or nature of God, in order to justify their ethical conclusions anyway.  They forward many other lines of argument to support their central claim that the supreme goal of life is virtue, or excellence of character.  (Not just because Zeus wills it.)  For instance, to take just one example, they argue that to judge something “good” is to desire it, and that it makes no sense to desire something that is not under our control, therefore the good must reside in some quality of our own voluntary actions, and good actions are what we mean by virtue.  (To be fair this proto-Kantian argument – “should entails can” – isn’t very explicit but I believe the Stoics allude to it and it’s easy to see how it would be consistent with their surviving remarks.)  They also argue that on reflection we tend to praise and admire other people not for their possessions but for the character of their voluntary actions, for “virtues” or good qualities such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline, and it would be inconsistent or hypocritical of us not to value and desire the same thing (virtue) for ourselves.  Whatever we make of these and other Stoic Ethical arguments, it’s simply not true that, in any obvious sense, they require us to agree with archaic metaphysical or theological assumptions.  I believe we could make the same sort of arguments today, from the perspective of modern scientific atheism or agnosticism, and defend them with additional arguments drawn from that world-view, without contradicting Stoicism’s central doctrines.  

Stoics Have Feelings Too

Many people mistakenly assume that Stoics seek to “repress”, “suppress”, or “eliminate” all of their emotions.  Sometimes this is described as the assumption that Stoics are like the character Mr. Spock from Star Trek, or that they are unemotional like a “cold fish”.  To be fair, even some highly-regarded academic scholars have, in the past, argued that Stoicism teaches the “extirpation” (uprooting and elimination) of all emotions.  However, I think few experts on Stoicism today would accept that interpretation.  First of all, it’s difficult to imagine why Stoicism would have been so successful in appealing to so many different people, for so many hundreds of years, if what it taught us was that we should eliminate all of our feelings, even the pleasant and seemingly healthy ones.  Also, much of our emotional life is not entirely “up to us”, and battling “stoically” against our automatic emotional reactions is bound to seem totally contrary to the well-known Stoic teaching that we should focus on changing things we control while accepting that some things are not within our power.

Moreover, it should probably be explained that the Stoics don’t even use a word that could be translated, unequivocally, by the English word “emotion”.  They talk mainly about “passions” (pathê), a technical term that has a very specific meaning in their philosophical system.  Passions were defined as both desires and emotions, which are “irrational”, “excessive”, and “unnatural” (in the sense of being unhealthy).  These “passions” are also intended to be voluntary: we implicitly choose to indulge in them and perpetuate them.  So the Stoics primarily advise us to stop going along with them.  It’s also important to explain that for Stoics there is no real division between reason and the passions, or emotions.  It was Plato’s doctrine that reason and the emotions are two fundamentally separate parts or faculties of the mind, and the Stoics criticised and totally rejected that assumption.  The emotion of fear, for example, consists of certain anxious feelings, but it also necessarily entails the judgement that something bad or harmful is about to happen, otherwise it just wouldn’t be fear.  

When people talk about “repressing” or “suppressing” emotions – two terms which, incidentally, mean very different things – they usually have a vague idea in mind, of forcefully eliminating the feelings or sensations, without changing the beliefs associated with them.  So someone who suppresses fear would perhaps be trying to relax their muscles, slow their breathing, act outwardly courageous, and block the feelings of anxiety from their mind, while still believing that something bad is about to happen.  Someone who does not believe that something bad is about to happen, probably won’t have any need to suppress their feelings in this way, though.  It doesn’t really make sense to talk about repressing or suppressing anxious feelings when the fearful belief has gone, and (under normal circumstances) anxiety abates naturally as a result.  That’s what the Stoics meant, though: changing the belief rather than merely suppressing the feelings.  They also don’t mean simply forcing the belief to change but rather they argued that the beliefs underlying unhealthy passions are false, and that we should change them by thinking things through philosophically until we actually realise that they are mistaken.  For instance, the Stoics don’t tell us to try to suppress our anxiety about death.  Rather they argue, on the basis of their philosophy, that death is not intrinsically bad, or evil.  (For example, some people may choose euthanasia, in extreme circumstances such as severe illness, which suggests that death is not perceived by them as worse than the prospect of an unpleasant future life.)  

Moreover, the Stoics explicitly stated that their philosophy contained a systematic model, which distinguishes between three categories of passion (or desires and emotions):

  1. “Passions” (pathê), which are irrational, excessive, unhealthy, and voluntarily perpetuated by us
  2. “Proto-passions” (propatheiai), which are the involuntary or reflex-like precursors of full-blown passions (desires and emotions), and the Stoics name examples such as shaking, sweating, being startled, stammering, blushing, etc.
  3. “Good passions” (eupatheiai), which are rational, moderate, healthy, and voluntary passions, which “supervene” upon wisdom and virtue, because they are the consequences of holding true beliefs about what is good, bad, and indifferent in our lives

The “good passions”, experienced by the Stoic Sage, or the “wise and good” person, are things like joy (happiness) about our own good qualities (virtues) or those of others, desire for ourselves and others to flourish and become better people, fate permitting, and a healthy concern about the possibility of falling into foolishness or vicious attitudes and behaviour.  That’s right, the Stoic ideal consists of feeling abundant joy!  It also consists of a kindly and benevolent attitude, which the Stoics describe as being like a gentle friendship felt toward our own selves, and the rest of mankind.  Indeed, Stoic Ethics is based on the idea that humans naturally tend to experience an instinct called “natural affection” (philostorgia) for our own offspring, and family.  The wise man gradually extends this into brotherly-love for all mankind, a kind of philanthropic attitude, linked to what we call Stoic “cosmopolitanism”, seeing all human beings as fundamentally brothers and sisters, and part of the same global community.  Marcus Aurelius described this very succinctly, in a way that obviously contradicts the “cold fish” misconception about Stoicism, when he said that the Stoic ideal is to be “free from the [irrational, unhealthy] passions, and yet full of love.”

Zeus, the Philosophers’ “God”

The ancient Stoics, particularly Epictetus, frequently refer to the Greek god Zeus in very religiously-devout-sounding language.  (Sometimes they refer to him under other names, such as “God” or “Jupiter”, or to other Greek or Roman deities.)  This leads many modern readers to assume that the ancient Stoics require us to “believe in God” in order to share in their philosophy, and if they happen to be atheists or agnostics, as many people are today, that can be somewhat off-putting.  However, the Stoics were renowned for basing their philosophy on concepts that radically revised the values and assumptions prevalent in their society.  They followed their predecessors the Cynics, and other philosophers, in doing this, and it is known as philosophical paradox, which literally means not just something puzzling but specifically something “contrary to (popular) opinion”.  The prevalent opinion about the gods, the opinion held by of the majority of ancient Greeks, was that they were literally the sort of characters described in the myths: supernatural beings, with human-like personalities and emotions, etc.  However, the Stoics held a completely different view, which so challenged popular theology that throughout history they – and philosophers like them, such as Spinoza – were frequently accused of being atheists by Christians and other theists.

The Stoics were pantheists of sorts (or “panentheists”) who believed that the whole of Nature is divine, and so they referred to the whole of Nature as “Zeus”.  They were also materialists of sorts (or “corporealists”) who utterly rejected the notion of any metaphysical realm beyond the physical universe, such as Plato’s theory of forms.  They are believed to have largely assimilated the philosophy of Nature taught by the famously paradoxical and cryptic pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.  In typically equivocal style, Heraclitus taught that Nature is “both willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus”.  I would say that if we asked Heraclitus whether “Nature” was the same thing as “Zeus” or “God”, he would reply: “yes and no”.  Moreover, I think that his successors the Stoics, if pressed on this question, would also give the same reply.  The Stoics were renowned in the ancient world for their attempts to reinterpret Greek myths allegorically, usually as metaphors for natural elements and processes.  For example, for the Stoics, Zeus is not literally a supernatural being, resembling a bearded man who hurls bolts of lightning from atop Mount Olympus.  Rather the myth of “Zeus” is a metaphor for the natural “fire”, the force or energy, that animates the whole of the physical universe, or it is Nature viewed as an active process.  

In his Republic, probably the founding text or original manifesto of Stoicism, Zeno reputedly described “as if in a dream”, a utopian vision of the ideal philosophical society.  In it there would be no shrines or temples.  The Pharsalia, a much later epic poem written by Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic Lucan, contains a scene in which the great Stoic hero of the Roman Republic, Cato of Utica, is advised by one of his officers to consult the priests in a temple to Zeus, and seek their prophesy about the outcome of an impending battle with the legions of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  However, Cato says no.  He basically says that Stoics don’t really believe in temples, or prophecies, of this kind.  Zeus is Nature, therefore he is present everywhere, and there are not really any special buildings in which he lives, and no special individuals (priests or prophets) through whom he speaks.  Nature runs through everything including the human mind, and so Cato looks deep within his own soul to commune with the divine by contacting his own deepest convictions and instincts and there he finds the doctrine of Stoicism that says whatever fate befalls us, all that truly matters is that we handle it virtuously, with wisdom and integrity.  He doesn’t need a priest to tell him that.  So we’re told he turned his back on the temple and walked away without even bothering to go inside.  The Stoic “Zeus” is Nature, and Nature has no use for temples or churches, scriptures and rituals, or priests and prophets.  Epictetus tells us that although Stoics might pray, they did not pray as the majority did.  They didn’t petition the gods for favours.  They didn’t pray for Zeus to bring rain for crops, or victory in battle, but rather they prayed for only one thing: to find wisdom within themselves and thereby to flourish as human beings.

This concept of a “sort-of” God – both willing and unwilling to be dubbed “Zeus” – is sometimes called the “philosophers’ God” and it’s so radically different from what most people mean by “God” that many agnostics or atheists may actually find it entirely acceptable – or at least, more acceptable – to their world-view.  Indeed, pantheism in general has often been viewed as a spiritual view which comes across as much more palatable than religions such as Christianity or Islam do to modern, scientifically and skeptically-inclined, individuals.  The physicist Albert Einstein, for example, said that he could not believe in the God of Christianity or Judaism but that he preferred to believe in the God that Spinoza described as “Deus sive Natura”, which basically means “God” as a synonym for the unfolding process of Nature as a whole.  This pantheistic God advocated by Einstein and Spinoza is therefore very similar to the Zeus of the Stoics.

Stoics Prefer Things; Cynics Don’t

Another common group of criticisms about Stoicism have to do with the claim that it treats all external things as totally indifferent, and that Stoics have no desire to change anything whatsoever in the world.  This takes various forms but it’s often allied with the claim that Stoics passively accept bad personal, political, or social situations, which most people would think we have an obligation to try to change.  The first thing to say in response to this is that as a matter of historical fact, the Stoic school was always particularly renowned for advocating political involvement among its followers.  For example, Zeno had King Antigonus of Macedonia, the most powerful military and political leader in the region, as a student and presumably discussed ethical doctrines with him that would have implications for the way he ruled.  Antigonus pleaded with Zeno to travel to his court and become his advisor but by that time he was an elderly man and somewhat too frail for the upheaval this would involve so he sent one of his finest students, Persaeus, instead, and we learn that he was put in charge of the city of Corinth and later died in battle commanding the garrison during its defence against Antigonus’ enemies.  

Likewise, the great Stoic hero Cato of Utica was famous for his political stubbornness and unflinching opposition to the rise of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Seneca’ nephew, Lucan’s epic poem, Pharsalia, describes Cato’s involvement in the Roman Civil War in heroic terms, particularly the scene where he finally takes command of the shattered remnants of the Republican army and marches them through the deserts of North Africa to make their last stand against Caesar’s legions at the fortified city of Utica.  Cato was not a doormat, in other words.  He was held up throughout Roman society as an exemplar of the Stoic virtues of courage and self-discipline, in the face of extreme adversity.  We might also point to (today) the most famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who also led a broken Roman army, weakened by plague, in a desperate but successful attempt to drive back invading barbarians hordes.  We’re told Marcus took emergency measures, which shocked the populace, such as conscripting gladiators into the army, and selling off many of his own treasures from the imperial palace to help fund the war effort.  Stoicism clearly did not lead him to sit back and twiddle his thumbs in passive resignation while the Marcomanni hordes overran and looted Roman cities.  If he’d lost that campaign and Rome had fallen, the world as we know it today would not exist.  He took to the battlefield and we’re told the legions under his command especially loved and revered him – the soldiers reputedly wept when his death was announced.  These were, therefore, all clearly men of action – exceptionally so.

So how is it possible for so many people to get the opposite idea: that Stoicism teaches us to be overly-passive or submissive?  This misconception basically stems from a tendency to confuse it with its precursor, the philosophy of Cynicism.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was originally a student of the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes.  For many years, therefore, Zeno was a Cynic but he founded the Stoic school, after training in philosophy for about twenty years, because he became dissatisfied with Cynicism and the other Socratic schools in Athens.  The Cynics believed that virtue is the only true good, vice is the only true evil, and that everything else is totally indifferent with regard to the goal of life.  Zeno and his Stoic students accepted this view but they also felt it was necessary to make a fundamental change to it.  So Zeno introduced an innovative concept which became known as the central and most characteristic teaching of the Stoic school: the doctrine of “preferred indifferents”.  This teaching says very simply that although the Cynics were right that only virtue can be considered “good” (and vice “bad”) in the strictest sense of the word, it is nevertheless necessary for the wise man to distinguish between external things that he “prefers” to get or to avoid.  

The Stoics provide very clear lists of these things.  For example, physical health, wealth, and good social standing, are “preferred”, and their opposites are “dispreferred” – it’s perfectly rational for the Stoic to prefer not to become ill, impoverished, or to be condemned or exiled.  When the Stoics describe these things as “indifferent” they mean that they’re of no relevance when it comes to the good life.  Socrates may have been starting to age, relatively poor, and condemned to death by unjust accusers and the Athenian court but he nevertheless lived a good life, an exceptionally better life in fact than the majority of other people, because he dealt with such adversity wisely and with courage.  The Stoics would say that his poverty did not actually make his life any worse but rather, if anything, it actually gave him more opportunity to exercise his virtues and strength of character, and to flourish as a wise and good man.  Despite this particular sense in which they lack value, though, some externals are considered to be naturally preferable over others and wisdom consists in choosing prudently between them, without compromising our virtues.  Chrysippus reputedly summed this up by saying, to paraphrase him somewhat, that to the Stoic Sage it’s ultimately indifferent whether or not he’s able to have a bath, because it won’t make him any more or less enlightened, but that given the opportunity, he would certainly prefer to be able to wash when he’s dirty.  

It’s perfectly natural and rational therefore for Stoics to continue to seek certain “preferred” things in life, and it would be foolish for them not to do so.  This perhaps involves an element of speculation on my part but, personally, I suspect that in the Republic, when Zeno described the ideal Stoic society, what he said was that this is the ultimate external goal of the wise man, the highest preferred indifferent, which he would presumably have to pursue with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  In other words, the wise man only rates his wellbeing in terms of attaining wisdom and virtue but his practical actions aim toward improving the world and the lives of other people, by spreading wisdom and virtue among them.  Zeno himself did this, for example, by lecturing in public, at the Stoa Poekile, where anyone could come and hear him speak, and by writing books intended to help others improve, even after his death.  Antigonus, Cato, and Marcus, would not have wrestled with the world of politics, or risked their lives on the field of battle, and Zeno and the other Stoic scholarchs would not have dedicated their lives to teaching and writing books if they did not believe that it was worthwhile trying to change the world in a way that seemed definitely “preferable” to them, and it would be better for them even to try and fail in doing so than never to have tried at all.  

Notes from Stoicon Talk and Workshop

Courtesy of Alejandro ed Valcarcel.Notes from Talk in Morning

  1. What I’m actually supposed to be talking about is “Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Stoicism” – So first of all: they’re two different things.  I said this last year: Weirdly, one of the most common criticisms people seem to make is that modern Stoics say they’re the same thing but I’ve never actually met anyone who does say that: so it’s a straw man.
  2. The clue’s in the name anyway: Stoic philosophy is a philosophy; cognitive-behavioural therapy is a therapy.
  3. My first book on Stoicism – The Philosophy of CBT – was all about the relationship between Stoicism and CBT.  In it, I said that philosophy is bigger and deeper than just therapy.  However, Stoic philosophy contains many therapeutic concepts and techniques.  (I listed lots of them in that book, which I’ll be giving an overview of in my workshop.)  All the schools of Hellenistic philosophy incorporated therapeutic elements, but Stoicism more so than the others.
  4. In modern times, Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis the two main founders of CBT both claimed that their therapy had its philosophical origins in ancient Stoic philosophy.  
  5. Ellis in particular drew very heavily on Stoic concepts and techniques.  Sometimes mentioning the Stoic heritage, sometimes not.  Ellis was originally a psychoanalyst who became disillusioned with Freud and decided in the 1950s to develop a more rational or philosophical approach to therapy.  He’d read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus years earlier and saw them as an obvious inspiration.
  6. (Incidentally, in the first half of the twentieth century, decades earlier, there was a rival to psychoanalysis called rational persuasion therapy, which was even more explicitly influenced by Stoicism, and it was a major precursor to Ellis, and subsequent CBT, although it’s largely forgotten now.)
  7. Anyway, many other psychotherapy authors, especially the CBT ones, have arrived at similar ideas, perhaps independently of the Stoics.   (Once you accept that cognitions are the key to emotions, you’re likely to invent similar therapy strategies for dealing with those cognitions.)
  8. I think the best example of this is what Beck called cognitive distancing, sometimes called “verbal defusion” by behaviourists.  So I want to say a little about that…  Cognitive distancing the ability to view one’s own thoughts in a somewhat detached manner, as transient mental events.  It’s the difference between “This guy’s an idiot!” and “I notice I’m having the thought right now that this guy is an idiot!”  It’s the opposite of being absorbed in thoughts or swept along by them, like happens in worry or rumination.  We suspend worry and rumination when we meditate and view our own thoughts more objectively.  Separating the map from the terrain, or separating thoughts from reality, as opposed to fusing them together.
  9. Beck’s original idea (1976) was that when people put their thoughts into words and write them down on paper or on a blackboard that can help them gain distance and view them as events, and he talks about several other ways of achieving this sense of detachment, although surprisingly he didn’t originally mention meditation.  (For instance, I might say “Donald is having the thought that…”, draw it inside a speech bubble, view it as a mere hypothesis as if I were a scientist who might test it out, and so on…)
  10. It wasn’t long before clients and therapists who were into Buddhism or yoga, etc., said: “Hang on a minute: this is basically what happens during meditation.”
  11. This has become the focus since the mid-1990s of what’s called the third-wave of CBT: behaviour therapy (first wave), cognitive therapy (second wave), and now mindfulness and acceptance-based therapy (third wave).
  12. However, ironically, this was the part of Stoicism most neglected by Beck and Ellis.  And later CBT authors don’t turn to Stoicism but to Buddhism for their inspiration with regard to mindfulness and distancing.  They could have found it in Stoicism, though.  (Pierre Hadot called it Stoic prosoche, attention to oneself, to your thoughts and value-judgements, in particular.)  
  13. Epictetus taught his students: When you experience a troubling thought (impression), you should train yourself to say to it: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”  That’s unmistakable: it’s a cognitive distancing strategy.  There are many similar strategies in Epictetus and in the other Stoic literature.  In about half a dozen places, Epictetus refers to being “swept along” or “carried away” by thoughts (he uses the same Greek expression each time), and he tells his students to be mindful of this, and to step back rather than going along with these runaway thoughts.  That’s cognitive distancing again.
  14. Albert Ellis actually taught most of his clients a famous quotation from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things.”  For many CBTers that forms part of what’s called the “socialisation” phase of treatment: where clients are taught their role in the process of therapy.  It’s not a method of disputing thoughts, questioning their evidence, but something that precedes that.  It’s also a cognitive distancing strategy.
  15. To be clear: we don’t mean “distancing” as in getting really far away from thoughts but rather we mean separating our thoughts from events, and viewing them more objectively.  That’s the kind of detachment we sometimes have when contemplating another person’s beliefs: when we say “it’s just his opinion.”  It’s the difference between looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles and taking the spectacles off and looking at them: looking at our thoughts, or our value-judgements, rather than looking at events through them.
  16. The Stoics also refer to this as withholding “assent” from our automatic flow of impressions: not just going along with them, and not struggling against them either, but pausing to consider them in a more detached and contemplative way. 
  17. Now, cognitive distancing is a subtle concept.  It’s tricky to define and it takes a while for some people to get the idea.  That’s why we use a technical term, there’s no word for it in ordinary language.  Most cognitive therapists would be familiar with this idea but classicists and philosophers wouldn’t normally be, so it’s been somewhat neglected in modern commentaries on Stoicism.  (People kind of missed it.)
  18. Earlier I mentioned “mindfulness”…  I would say “mindfulness” is a slightly broader concept that consists of roughly three things: cognitive distance, focus on the here and now, and a degree of self-awareness.  These are all themes that run throughout all the Stoic literature: (1) we should view our impressions objectively, (2) we should focus on the present moment, (3) we should continually pay attention to our ruling faculty, the seat of all our value-judgements and source of the passions.  We should not allow ourselves to be swept along by troublesome impressions into worry, into irrational, unhealthy, and excessive trains of thought, rumination about fears and desires.
  19. “Mindfulness”, incidentally, is, in a sense, a modern concept: it’s actually a bit of a buzzword.  The English word wasn’t in widespread use until the 1960s.  Scholars are undecided to what extent it actually corresponds with concepts found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures.  Although “mindfulness” has become associated with Buddhism, in some ways, what we’ve come to mean by that word may actually have as much, or more in common, with what the ancient Stoics were talking about.
  20. So for me, IMHO, Stoicism is very much a mindfulness-based philosophy of life, and it contains many mindfulness-based psychological techniques: it contains a mindfulness-based therapy of the passions.  
  21. Stoicism is essentially an ethical world-view that says virtue – or excellence of character – is the only true good.  We should love and cherish virtue.  That implies that we should continually be paying attention to our own character and actions, the seat of virtue.  (If you want any good, look inside yourself: said Epictetus.)
  22. However, only our voluntary judgements and actions can be virtuous, so Epictetus advised his students to continually maintain a careful distinction between their own actions and everything else, everything external to their volition or involuntary.
  23. It seems to me that’s the most important practical component of Stoicism.  That’s why it’s spelled out in the opening paragraphs of Epictetus’ Stoic Handbook.  We have two types of thought: thoughts that we think on purpose and thoughts that just pop into our minds automatically.  (Like when you try not to think about donkeys.)  Psychologists call those “automatic” versus “strategic” thinking processes.  And this distinction has become central to third-wave or mindfulness-based CBT.
  24. It seems to me that separating those two things – what’s under our control about our thinking and what isn’t – requires a kind of cognitive distancing.  I think that’s what’s most distinctive, though, about what I’d call “Stoic mindfulness”.  That dichotomy of control – which I sometimes like call the “Stoic fork” – that’s what’s most Stoic, about Stoic mindfulness.  
  25. It’s no coincidence that it constitutes the very beginning of Epictetus’ Handbook, because it’s the psychological foundation of Epictetus’ Handbook.  Some things are “up to us” and others are not.  In a word, our own actions (or rather our decisions, our ruling faculty’s judgements) are up to us and everything else is indifferent, at least with regard to our attaining eudaimonia, or fulfilment, the goal of life.
  26. So anyway, I’d like to leave you with this quote from Marcus Aurelius, as that’s our theme: “Always bear in mind what Heraclitus said: […] ‘we must not act and speak like men asleep.’” (Meditations, 4.46)

Workshop on Stoicism and Mental Imagery

Part I

Overview of Stoic psychological strategies…

  1. Premeditation of Adversity (cf. “Negative Visualisation”).
  2. View from Above / Cosmology (Olympian versus Cosmic)
  3. Contemplation of Death (and transience of material things)
  4. Contemplation of the Sage (Model, Observer)
  5. Contemplation of Gods and Heroes (Zeus, Hercules, Socrates, Diogenes, etc.)
  6. Contemplating the Virtues of Others (Marcus Book 1, Zeno on Antisthenes)
  7. Memorisation of Maxims (Paraphrasing) – Fist clenching
  8. Writing a Journal to Oneself (The Meditations)
  9. Writing Letters for Others (Seneca’s Letters and Consolations, possibly unsent)
  10. Socratic Philosophical Discourse (Epictetus’ Discourses, Seneca’s Dialogues)
  11. Contemplation of the Present Moment
  12. Morning Meditation, cosmos, anticipate adversity (Marcus, Epictetus)
  13. Evening Meditation/Review (Pythagoras, Seneca, Epictetus)
  14. Distancing (“You are just an impression…”)
  15. Postponement of Response, until Passions have naturally abated (Seneca on Anger, Epictetus)
  16. Distinguishing what is “up to us” from what is not.
  17. Voluntary hardship (camp bed, philosopher’s cloak, vegetarian diet, endurance of heat and cold, physical exercise)
  18. Attention to Faculty of Judgement (Stoic Mindfulness)
  19. Action with the Reserve Clause
  20. Amor Fati (Stoic Acceptance)
  21. The Goal of Life as Virtue (Unity of Purpose)
  22. Contemplation of Metaphors (Life as Festival, Life as Ballgame)
  23. Self-Monitoring (Epictetus, count times you become angry)
  24. Contemplating the Unity of the Cosmos (men as limbs)
  25. The Circles of Hierocles (calling friends “brother”)
  26. Natural Philosophy (scientific mindset) / “Objective Representation” (Phantasia Kataleptike)
  27. Plus others (we haven’t spotted, or that I’ve forgotten)

Part II: View from Above Script

“Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable… Close your eyes and relax… [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing… Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath… Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply… [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one… From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes… Be aware of your body as one… every nerve, muscle and fibre… Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing… Some things can change just by being observed…

Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…

Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.

As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…

Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…

You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.

And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…

You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… The totality is absolute reality… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the “All” itself… Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe… Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…

Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.

Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…

Now think about the room around you… Think about action… movement… think about looking around and getting your orientation… raising your head a little… Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply… a little bit more energetically… let your body feel more alive and ready for action… breathe energy and vitality into your body… breathe a little deeper and deeper again… until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation… taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life… beginning now… take a deep breath… and open your eyes now… when you’re ready… entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity…

Download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook

Stoic Week 2015 Handbook CoverThe Stoic Week 2015 Handbook is now available!

Before you download or read the Handbook, it’s very important that, if possible, you complete the following preliminary questionnaires:

Online Questionnaires

We’d also like you, if possible, to enrol on our e-learning site as this helps us track the number of participants and their level of involvement.  You’ll have access to the forums here, which are an important part of the course:

Enroll on the Stoic Week Course at Modern Stoicism

However, we appreciate that some people may be unable or prefer not to complete the questionnaires or register online.  The Handbook is also available for download, in a range of formats that can be accessed offline.  You can access EPUB, MOBI (Kindle) and plain text (MarkDown) versions of the Handbook from the Modern Stoicism website, via the link above.  You may also download the PDF version of the Handbook by clicking on the link below:

Stoic Week 2015 Handbook (PDF)

Starting Stoic Week 2015

Stoic Week Handbook 2015Welcome to Stoic Week 2015: Modern-day Meditations Inspired by Marcus Aurelius!

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person.

We’d like to keep track of the number of participants so please take a moment to enrol on the Modern Stoicism e-learning site if possible.  (If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to create an account on the site.)

Modern Stoicism

The e-learning site, managed by Donald Robertson, has many other resources to help you get the most out of Stoic Week 2015.  It also hosts the discussion forums where you can meet other participants and share your Stoic journal entries for the week, if you wish.  Take a moment to introduce yourself!  At the time of writing, over 2,400 people have already enrolled in advance to take part and we look set to exceed last year’s total of 2,650 participants.

Once you’ve registered (or if you choose not to) you can complete the preliminary questionnaires for Stoic Week 2015 prepared by Tim LeBon:

Preliminary Questionnaires

Collecting data like this is of tremendous importance to the future continuation of Stoic Week.  (We’re interested in the mean scores rather than your individual responses but you can choose to skip this step if you really want to.)   It allows us to measure to what extent Stoic Week has an effect and to gather basic demographic information on the type of people who take part.  In previous years, participants have enjoyed completing these forms because they found them insightful, especially the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) developed by our own Stoicism Today team.

The Stoic Week 2015 Handbook will be available on Modern Stoicism in HTML format, and also for download in EPUB, MOBI (Kindle), PDF, and plain text (MarkDown) formats.  That means you can read it on a mobile device, even if you’re offline, on a train for instance.  If you’re completing the questionnaires it’s essential that you do so before downloading or reading the Handbook, or starting the Stoic Week exercises.

The Handbook will be available a day or two before Monday 2nd November, the official start of Stoic Week, to give people time to read the initial sections before they begin putting it into practice.  We’ll announce via social networks, our blogs, and Modern Stoicism, when it’s ready for download.  If you register at Modern Stoicism, though, you’ll receive an email notification.