Tag Archives: stoicism

Marcus Aurelius in Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952)

East of EdenThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck.  Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on East Of Eden‘.  Steinbeck once said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life.  Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the novel.  We can also find the following direct reference:

[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.

Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.

He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Lee glanced down the page. “Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. I’m sorry. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’—don’t forget that.” He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter’s pencil, “Sam’l Hamilton.”

Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam’l Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, “But of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?”  He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.

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!