New Elearning Site for Stoicism

Quick announcement explaining some changes to the site, and some news about elearning on Stoicism.

Hi everyone,

You may notice some slight changes over the next few weeks.  I’ve migrated all users from this site to a Teachable elearning site, which is on the subdomain:

That performs much better, is more secure, and looks much nicer than our old WordPress elearning.  If you go there now, you should be able to log in.  Otherwise, just create a new account.  Please feel free to email me if you need any help.

You’ll find some new courses appearing there.  It’s already hosting our Crash Course in Stoicism, which over 1,200 people have already done.  It’s a free mini-course that is designed to take under ten minutes.  Also the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course for 2017, in which a whopping 1,850 people are taking part this year. Soon the new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course will be open for enrolment.

Those of you who were following have now been migrated over to followers of this site, which is replacing the old one.  That domain is in the process of being diverted here.  Just in case you wonder what’s going on.

If you’re not already following this blog, you can do so by submitting your email below, and WordPress will notify you each time a new article is added:

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Also, if you want to subscribe to my email newsletter, which contains information new courses and free resources, etc., then submit your email here:

Anyway, as always, thanks for your support!


Donald Robertson

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Forthcoming course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.

I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.

I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication.  It’s been a labour of love.  For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.

You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:

I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far.  This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though.  I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.

If you want to receive updates on the course and be notified when it’s available just enter your details below:

I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.

I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later.  If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  

Please make sure you add your email address to the list above, though, so that you don’t miss out on the announcements.  Thanks once again for your support!

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training 2017

Just a quick note to say that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training SMRT will be starting around the middle of July, and you can enrol in advance now.  It’s completely free and thousands of people have done it since 2014.  Click the link below to visit the site.  More details to follow shortly…

Stoicism, Insults, and Political Correctness

A bit of a ramble about insults and political correctness, in relation to Stoicism.

Recently I’ve been thinking more about insults and what Stoicism might tell us about how to view them.  That’s been prompted by some articles by William Irvine and Eric O. Scott about insults, social justice, and political correctness, following Irvine’s recent publication of the book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t.  Their discussion does a good job of applying Stoic philosophy to a specific dilemma that’s very topical at the moment.  There’s been a lot of reference in the media recently to “microaggression”, “safe spaces”, and “trigger warnings”, particularly on US college campuses.

I’m not attempting in this post to provide a comprehensive overview of these issues.  So apologies if I’ve neglected an important topic.  I merely want to contribute a few meandering notes, including some observations on passages in the ancient Stoic literature that I feel may perhaps have been overlooked.

Let’s start with microaggressions.  I was a psychotherapist for many years, so this dilemma is pretty familiar to me because it frequently comes up in therapy sessions, particularly in the context of treating social anxiety and providing what therapists call social-skills training.  Psychological literature on dealing with insults, or put-downs, goes back, in particular, to the 1970s, the heyday of what used to be called “assertiveness training”.  So I feel that when considering some of these issues it’s helpful to bring in elements of that perspective, as well as some of the insights Stoic philosophy has to offer.  Psychotherapy, of course, speaks mainly to the psychological issues at stake in these debates, but it also has something to say about the ethical and political dimension because those are dilemmas that any therapist working in this area, over the last forty or fifty years, will have had to wrestle with in discussions with their clients, as well as in clinical supervision.

William Irvine’s article cites a recent article, which quotes, Sheree Marlowe, the chief diversity officer at Clark University, giving the following advice to incoming students in her presentation on microaggressions:

Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.

Irvine claims that much of this advice is further sensitizing students to insults, whereas the ancient Stoics would have recommended that they be desensitized to them, i.e., that they learn to “shrug off insults”.

The Stoics, after devoting considerable thought to how best to respond to insults, concluded that we would do well to become insult pacifists. When insulted, we should not insult back in return; we should instead carry on as if nothing had happened. It is, I have found, a very effective way to deal with many insults. On failing to provoke a rise in his target, an insulter is likely to feel foolish.

In relation to some of the most serious kinds of insults, “hate speech”, Irvine’s advice is as follows:

What about hate speech, though? Should we remain silent in the face of a racist insult? It depends on the situation. But the one thing we should not do is take the insult personally. We should instead dismiss hate speech, in much the same way as we should dismiss the barking of an angry dog. We should keep in mind that the dog, not being fully rational, cannot help itself. The Stoics would add that if we let ourselves get angered or upset by a barking dog, we have only ourselves to blame.

Eric O. Scott’s response to William Irvine’s book, and his presentation on this subject at Stoicon, raises the concern that Stoicism might be misinterpreted by some as advocating an overly-passive attitude toward social injustices, because of the the emphasis it places on acceptance.  He writes:

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

Many people today appear to read the Stoics as advising that would should be in some sense indifferent to the suffering of others.  I think Scott does a good job of forcefully arguing against this, putting forward the case that Stoicism has always emphasised the virtue of justice, and an ethical concern for the common welfare of mankind.  Irvine then replied to this article, as follows:

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

As an aside, we do know that Marcus passed several laws that improved the situation for slaves under his rule.  I’ll discuss the notion that he and other Stoics are to blame for failing to openly oppose the institution of slavery in a separate section below.  In any case, Irvine agrees with Scott here that Stoics do have a social duty to help others, which must be reconciled with their emotional acceptance of external events.

I believe there’s a crucial, and actually fairly well-known passage, that may help clarify the psychological aspect of the Stoic position.  In the Encheiridion, Epictetus is quoted as teaching his students:

When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: ‘What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgement on the event.’ Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being. (Handbook, 17)

Does Epictetus advise his students to ignore the man in distress?  Does he suggest that they should simply challenge him for being overly-sensitive or tell him to “suck it up, buttercup”?  No.  Does he suggest delivering a lecture on Stoic Ethics to the person in distress?  No.  What Epictetus actually advised his students was that they should express outward sympathy, without hesitation.  And to groan along with him, in certain situations, showing commiseration.  His only caveat is that we should not ourselves become upset at the same external things: groan along outwardly, by all means, but not inwardly.

Why does Epictetus say this?  Well, first of all, it’s clearly an important passage.  Arrian selected it for the Handbook, which is a highly condensed summary of Epictetus’ Stoic teachings.  So it’s not a throwaway remark.  It’s presumably a central component of his teaching, and something it was considered important for all of his students to remember in daily life, hence its inclusion in the Encheiridion.  Epictetus must have encountered similar misinterpretations of Stoicism to the ones we hear today: that it encourages us to be callous toward the suffering of others.  That’s not consistent with Stoic Ethics, though.  We have a duty to care for other rational beings, and to wish them well, Fate permitting.  We should desire to alleviate the suffering of others, where possible, although doing so is outside of our direct control and must therefore be pursued “lightly” as Epictetus put it.  That doesn’t mean abandoning the goal of helping other people altogether, though.  It means balancing the desire to help others overcome their suffering with acceptance of the fact that they have minds of their own.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  We can and should try to help others, nevertheless.

Sometimes people rightly detect that the Stoics think the best thing we can do for others is to educate them if we believe they’re mistaken, which would include with regard to the things that upset them.  Sure.  But what people sometimes miss is that the Stoics also recognise that when someone is in the grip of a passion they’re not thinking straight so it’s not the best time to reason with them.  Seneca says that if you tell someone who is in the grip of anger to calm down, it will just make them worse.  That tends to apply to anxiety and other emotions as well.  The Stoics knew that over 2,000 years ago.  Cognitive therapists arrived at the same conclusion, based on their experience.  People find it difficult to think objectively when they’re upset so there’s no point trying to lecture them.  We should treat them with kindness and empathy, wait for their passions to naturally abate, and then perhaps talk to them about things if the opportunity arises, but in a sensitive manner rather than in a hectoring or condescending way.

I think it’s extremely helpful to dwell on the passage above for a moment and consider how it would apply to some of the modern examples being discussed.  One of the typical examples of a microaggression given on university campuses is asking foreign students “Where are you from?”  It’s considered to be potentially offensive to pose this question.  I’m Scottish but I live in Nova Scotia, in Canada.  About once a month, I reckon, someone asks me what part of Ireland I’m from – it’s mainly taxi drivers.  (I’m totally serious.)  Is that a microaggression?  I don’t know.  It would probably offend some people.  It just makes me laugh.  I think my Canadian girlfriend gets more annoyed about it than I do.  Several British people in Canada have told me that they actually felt quite offended by similar remarks, though.

What advice should a Stoic give to people genuinely offended by these sort of comments?  Should we say: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgement about events.”  Should I tell them to cultivate indifference toward external things?  No.  That would obviously be flippant and insensitive.  It wouldn’t normally be very helpful.  Why?  Precisely because their passions, being external to my volition, are not under my direct control.  In other words, merely telling them “what not to think” is unlikely to transform them into Stoic Sages.  That’s something that seems trivial when it’s said to me but at which other people do sometimes take offence.

Here’s a more sensitive example…  The bars in North America often sell a cocktail called an “Irish car bomb”.  The first time I noticed that my jaw hit the floor because it seemed to be making light of atrocities such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 civilians, including several young children and a pregnant woman.  It’s a pretty common drink, though.  Would a typical Canadian bar serve a cocktail called an “Iraqi car bomb” or one (hypothetically) called an “Ottawa shooter“?  Probably not.  So that’s technically a double-standard and morally hypocritical, right?  Although, notice that some of these are empirical questions…  For all I know there are bars in Ontario that do a roaring trade in Ottawa shooters.

What if someone’s maiden aunt lost a close friend in the Omagh bombing and then walked into a bar in Canada to be greeted by a massive blackboard on the wall saying “Irish car bombs half-price on St. Paddy’s Day”?  Is it offensive?  Yes.  Is it worth being upset about.  No.  Should we be surprised if some people are upset by it?  No.  Should we tell them to “get over themselves” and not take things so personally.  No.  What would Epictetus and the other Stoics actually advise us to do?  Well, as we’ve just seen, according to Arrian, they’d say that if someone is genuinely upset we should express outward sympathy, and act sensitively.  They’d say that we should be more concerned, though, about remaining inwardly detached ourselves and not joining in their distress – not allowing ourselves to be triggered.  We should also behave sympathetically, though.

You see, what Stoicism has to say about this is actually very insightful, complex, and interesting…  because it asks us to strike a careful balance.  Often people in these debates about political correctness, and so on, go to one extreme or the other.  They focus either on the notion that people are emotionally overreacting to things that others see as trivial (“liberal snowflakes”).  Or they focus on the fact that people are being insensitive to the inevitable distress caused by certain triggers (“right-wing bigots”).  I like to say that Stoicism is all about striking a delicate balance between “acceptance and action” or between emotional indifference and ethical concern.  That’s the whole point of the philosophy really.

We all know the Stoic Sage is unperturbed by Irish car bomb cocktails and “sticks and stones may break his bones but words will never hurt him.”  Sure but the Sage is a hypothetical ideal: the individual equivalent of a Utopian society.  Or at least, he’s as “rare as the Ethiopian phoenix” as the Stoics put it – and that was born every 500 years, according to legend.  Most of us – including Zeno, Chrysippus, and Epictetus – are classed as fools by the Stoics.  Everyone is flawed.  We’re all FINE – fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.  It’s unrealistic, un-Stoic, and unphilosophical, to act surprised when other people are upset by external events.  It would also be morally vicious to completely disregard their distress.

What do therapists who work with clients on a daily basis, dealing with these issues, actually do?  Well, they have the whole “armamentarium” of psychological techniques at their disposal.  For example, clients may learn to employ cognitive distancing strategies to moderate the distress caused by certain insults.  Alternatively, they may employ “fogging“, from assertiveness training, the subtle art of agreeing with someone without really agreeing with them.  Or they might employ repeated imaginal exposure to the upsetting event until their anxiety has naturally abated.

But should the therapist be shocked if their client is initially offended by insults?  Or should they join with the client in their judgement that the events are “awful”, or offensive enough to be upsetting?  Well, modern cognitive therapists face this dilemma every day.  They all know that they have to walk a thin line between empathy and agreement.  It’s understandable that the client is upset by insults but it’s also true that they don’t really need to feel deeply hurt by words – they could learn to view them in a more detached way.

What about trigger warnings?  Massimo Pigliucci has written an excellent article on “trigger warnings” in academia.  These are warnings given to students in advance that a lecture may contain material that could be upsetting, especially to sufferers of PTSD. Now, the concern you’ll hear most therapists express about this issue is that the main treatment for anxiety, including PTSD, is repeated exposure to the feared event, and that avoidance is symptomatic and a maintaining factor in anxiety disorders.  So the very idea of giving trigger warnings seems to fly completely in the face of what psychological research tells us about best practice in the treatment of PTSD.

If I am “triggered” by conversations about sex then avoiding those conversations is probably not going to help me in the long-term, it will potentially backfire by maintaining or even increasing my sensitivity.  That said, exposure in therapy is usually following a graduated hierarchy, prolonged sufficiently for habituation to occur, and carried out in a safe environment under controlled conditions.  It may be unhelpful for people to be caught off guard by experiences that trigger their anxiety.  However, if we simply eliminated these exposure experiences, by never mentioning sex or whatever triggers are a concern, that would definitely reduce the chances of natural habituation taking place, and the anxiety or distress abating naturally – the vulnerable students would potentially get worse rather than better in the long-run.

For example, in an article entitled “HAZARDS AHEAD: The Problem with Trigger Warnings, According to the Research”, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

Also, warning a group of students about quite specific triggers carries the risk of unintentional disclosure by alerting some students to the fact that others have a specific form of anxiety.  The lecturer says, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be talking about alien abductions today, in case anyone’s concerned by that…”  Student x gets up and leaves the room, looking flustered.  So everyone else in the class now basically knows that student x has anxiety that’s triggered by discussions of alien abductions.  The cat is out of the bag.  So that can now be spread around as gossip, etc.  (The lecturer could warn students beforehand by email, etc., but the mere absence of particular students would still potentially lead to unintentional disclosure in this way.)

So are philosophers clouding the issue by speaking outside their sphere of competence and trespassing on the professional domain of psychologists?  One of the things I notice about these debates is that they often turn on questions that are empirical rather than purely ethical.  For example, whether or not we warn students in advance about a possible trigger word is probably going to depend on our appraisal of the probability and severity of the distress caused.  That’s not really an ethical question, though.  If I was talking to vulnerable group of female refugees from a war-torn country where sexual abuse is common, I might think that it’s tactless to bring up the subject of rape without some kind of preliminary remark.  Most of us would probably agree on that, probably even Epictetus.  At the other end of the scale, some people have clown or belly-button phobias but they’re not so common that you’d expect to find one in every lecture room, and they’re not usually severe enough that they induce full-blown panic attacks at the mere mention of the word.  (Although there’s always the exception that proves the rule.)

So if the majority of us, even the Stoics, agree that sometimes it makes sense to warn people in advance then the disagreement seems mainly to over where to draw the line.  Again, that seems to be an empirical question for psychology, not a purely philosophical question.  We might want to consider what the actual prevalence of sexual trauma or other potential issues is among the population we’re addressing, for example.  We should also distinguish between different forms of anxiety.  Phobic anxiety can be severe but isn’t usually overwhelming or traumatising unless it’s accompanied by what psychologists technically refer to as “panic attacks”, a term that has a very specific meaning in psychopathology.  PTSD, by contrast, is often more severe and frequently accompanied by panic attacks, in which anxiety feels completely overwhelming.  That can lead to a phenomenon called re-traumatisation, in which anxiety being triggered can cause a relapse into PTSD symptoms, especially if experienced in a public setting, such as a lecture theatre.  Once again, though, these are empirical questions about psychopathology.

We all agree (or most of us do) that we shouldn’t knowingly harm other people, which is the ethical component.  The disagreements often turn on where the line should be drawn dividing acceptable from unacceptable levels of risk.  Perhaps that’s really a question for psychologists, though, which would help explain why philosophers have struggled to agree on an answer, especially if they’re just engaged in armchair speculation without reference to scientific data.  Perhaps they’re simply not the best people to answer the question.

Some Comments on Stoicism and Slavery

Perhaps this is a little bit of a digression but I think it may be of interest…  In his article, Scott writes:

Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I agree with the fundamental point he is making here.  However, I feel that the quote about Seneca is perhaps slightly misleading, if it implies that Stoicism in general didn’t question the institution of slavery.

For a while, I did assume that the Stoics said virtually nothing about the institution slavery.  In many ways, it would be unrealistic to have expected them to condemn it very forcefully or openly.  It may even be that they simply thought it would be unrealistic to try to oppose it.  Marcus Aurelius’ armies, for example, probably captured hundreds of thousands of barbarians during the major wars of his reign.  Should they have been executed?  Released to regroup and attack again?  In fact, Marcus tried to resettle many inside the empire, in Italy, although I think some then engaged in an uprising.  So apart from the fact that the Roman economy was entirely dependant on slavery, in the ancient world abolition perhaps posed other problems, such as what else could be done with hundreds of thousands of hostile foreign captives.  That’s not a “justification” of slavery, just an attempt to explain why the Stoics may not have been in a position to speak out effectively against the entire institution.

However, I feel it’s only fair to say that, contrary to the book cited above, Seneca did go a little further than mere silence on the matter.  In fact, he dedicated the whole of letter 47 to the topic of a master’s relationship with his slaves.  There he argues that a master has a duty to treat his slaves with respect and affection, as fellow human beings, and friends.  Although he certainly doesn’t question the institution of slavery as a whole, Seneca does forcefully argue that slaves should be treated with equal respect to free men: “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”  He condemns those who abuse their slaves or see them as inferiors.  The kernel of his advice, as he puts it, is this: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”

Nevertheless, Seneca does not go so far as to say that people should cease to own other people, as their slaves.  I used to think that’s as far as the Stoic critique of slavery went but then I noticed the following passage in Diogenes Laertius’ overview of early Stoic philosophy, part of his chapter on Zeno of Citium:

They [the Stoics] declare that he [the Sage] alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.

According to Diogenes Laertius, therefore, it appears that the early Stoics did indeed condemn the institution of slavery as evil.  I suspect he is probably referring either to Zeno’s Republic or to one of the many writings of Chrysippus.  It’s not surprising that the Stoics may have said this, of course, because as many people today note their concept of brotherly-love for the rest of mankind on the basis of us all being citizens of the same cosmos, appears very much at odds with the notion of slave-ownership.  Moreover, Zeno’s Republic, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently portrayed a Utopian vision of the ideal Stoic society, in which all men and women were wise and equal.  It’s therefore difficult to imagine how the institution of slavery could possibly be part of the ideal Stoic society- a sage would have to own another sage but, in any case, we’re told all property is to be held in common.  So slavery must surely have also been abolished, along with law-courts, property, currency, etc., in Zeno’s Republic.

Stoic Arguments Against Hedonism

Some notes on hedonism and the ancient criticisms made of it by Stoics and others.

AristippusNB: This is a draft.  I’ll add more detail over time and in response to comments.

Hellenistic schools of philosophy were often distinguished from each other in terms of their definition of the supreme good.  The Stoics defined the goal of life as the attainment of wisdom and virtue.  They frequently contrasted this with the common notion that pleasure (hedone) is the most important thing in life.  Indeed, Chrysippus wrote one book entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and another on Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, i.e., pleasure is not intrinsically good at all let alone the supreme goal of life.

Hedonistic philosophies of life can actually take different forms.

  1. The naive assumption that pleasure, and avoidance of pain, is the most important thing in life, which is commonly taken for granted by non-philosophers.
  2. The Cyrenaic philosophy, founded in the early 4th century BC, which proposed an ethical system based on the premise that the goal of life is to experience bodily pleasure in the present moment.
  3. The Epicurean philosophy, founded in the late 4th century BC, which developed a more subtle ethical system, also claiming that pleasure is the goal of life, but distinguishing between different types of pleasure and placing most value on the absence of emotional suffering (ataraxia).

However, the writings of Epicurus and his followers are notoriously ambiguous in this regard and different people tend to interpret his meaning in different ways.  Cicero, for example, insists that Epicureanism endorses the pursuit both of ataraxia and of bodily pleasures of the Cyrenaic kind, citing Epicurus’ own writings in support of this interpretation.

The Stoics mainly focused their criticisms on naive hedonism, which they believed was a common vice.  However, they also frequently attacked the more philosophical doctrines of their rivals, the Epicurean school.  You can read detailed accounts of the various Stoic criticisms of Epicureanism in Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero’s De Finibus.

This article will explore the basic criticisms of hedonism found in the Stoic literature.  The Stoics typically attacked hedonism using the Socratic method, by exposing contradictions in their opponent’s position through questioning.  For example, there are often apparent conflicts between the claim that pleasure is the goal of life and some of their actions, or other moral assumptions held by them.

Socrates was the original source for criticisms of hedonism found in the Cynic-Stoic tradition.  His student Antisthenes reputedly said that pleasure is bad, and that he would rather go insane than experience pleasure.  However, the Stoics adopted a more moderate position, arguing that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, with regard to the good life.  It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that unlike Antisthenes, the Stoics were not saying that pleasure is bad.  However, they did believe that hedonism, the assumption that “pleasure is (intrinsically) good”, was a  vice, and the basis of an irrational passion.

1. Self-Defeating

One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating.  There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy.  We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance” is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety.  The more strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will tend to try to suppress or avoid them.  This has been repeatedly shown to backfire in psychological studies, e.g., because when we judge something to be extremely bad we automatically tend to focus more attention on it.  In the case of subjective experiences, such as feelings, this backfires because it actually tends to evoke and amplifies the very thing we’re trying to avoid.  One study actually found that people who strongly endorse the belief “anxiety is bad” are more predisposed to developing mental health problems in the future.  That’s strikingly similar to the Epicurean doctrine that pain (which would include anxiety) is bad – it’s virtually direct evidence that holding that value judgement tends to be psychologically harmful.  It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly in conflict with modern psychological research in general.

The Cynics, in particular, were known for arguing that the best way to overcome pain and suffering is, paradoxically, by “voluntary hardship“, or training ourselves to accept unpleasant feelings.  They use a variety of analogies to express this notion.  Someone being chased by wild dogs who tries to run in panic will probably be taken down and savaged by them but if he is brave enough to turn and face them with confidence, they will often back away.  Someone who tentatively grabs a snake by the tail or the middle will get bitten, but someone who firmly grasps it behind the head will be safer.  Someone who hesitantly tries to stamp out a blazing fire may be more likely to get burned than someone who tramples it confidently.  A boxer who keeps backing down and nervously tries to protect himself too fearfully is more likely to be overwhelmed than one who faces his opponent unafraid of taking blows.  Today it’s become a cliche to speak of “grasping the nettle” because someone who grasps a nettle quickly and firmly is less likely to be stung than someone who does it hesitantly.

All of these analogies refer to the paradox of acceptance, which has become a staple of modern chronic pain management and increasingly central to modern behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression.  The more we try to control or suppress unpleasant feelings, the worse they tend to get over the long term.  Whereas the more we can train ourselves to relax into and actively accept unpleasant feelings, as indifferent, the more they tend to naturally abate, to some extent, and the less secondary problems are associated with experiencing them.  That presupposes the attitude that painful or unpleasant feelings are totally “indifferent” (Stoicism) as opposed to the view that they are bad (hedonism).


So much for judging unpleasant feelings too negatively (“pain is bad”).    What about judging pleasant feelings too positively (“pleasure is good”)?  There’s less research on the negative effect of placing too much value on  positive subjective feelings.  However, many philosophers and psychologists in the past have observed that trying too hard to feel happy is often a surefire way to make life miserable.  Feelings of pleasure and happiness seem to occur most reliably, over the long-term, when we do healthy and fulfilling things in life, without being too directly preoccupied with our feelings.  For example, it’s long been established that introspection is associated with anxiety and depression.  People who are happy and fulfilled tend to be more focused on outward things, on other people, on activity, rather than morbidly preoccupied with their own inner world.  Feelings of happiness are best achieved by an indirect approach, that allows them to arise as a byproduct of healthy and constructive activity, rather than by trying to exert too much direct control over our inner thoughts and feelings.  However, as modern behaviour therapists have consistently noted, when we place too much value on feelings of pleasure and happiness, it’s difficult not to end up being preoccupied with exerting internal control in this way because our attention automatically tends to follow our value judgments in this way.  Placing more value on the character of our actions (Stoicism), and focusing attention on them, is more likely to generate positive feelings, ironically, than placing supreme value on the feelings themselves.

2. Not Natural

Some ancient hedonists, starting with the Cyrenaics, tried to argue that it is natural for animals, and human infants, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Those are the instincts adult humans inherent, they argued, and we should develop an ethic on that basis.  It tended to be assumed by ancient philosophers that what is natural, or instinctive, is also good and healthy.

However, the Stoics directly attacked this claim.  They argued that animals frequently expose themselves voluntarily to pain or discomfort, and also forego pleasure, under certain circumstances.  That appears to prove that the natural instincts, even of certain species of animals, do not posit pleasure as the supreme goal of life.  For example, many animals will instinctively endure danger and painful injury for the sake of protecting their own offspring from attack.  The Stoics like to refer to the example of a bull who will risk being clawed and bitten by a lion while defending the weaker members of his herd, an example probably drawn from Zeno’s Republic.  Incidentally, I think it’s irrelevant here to question the Stoics’ claims about specific examples of animal behaviour, what matters is that their general point is correct: many animals will definitely risk death or injury to protect their offspring.  (In fact, certain species of cattle are quite skilled at taking down a lion.)

Sometimes people assume that modern behavioural psychology endorses this assumption about animals and humans being primarily motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, this is not the case.  B.F. Skinner the leading pioneer of American behavioural analysis was at pains to stress that sensations of pain and pleasure are merely common side-effects of reinforcement.

3. Contradicts Common Moral Intuitions

The ancient philosophers provide many examples of situations in which seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the supreme good would potentially lead us to act in ways that conflict with common moral intuitions, about what is right and wrong.  Some hedonists argue that it’s the fear of punishment or being reprimanded that ensures that they will not break the law, harm others, etc.  However, it turns out that’s a very weak argument because it’s easy to think of situations in which it becomes problematic.

For example, Cicero gives the example of someone who notices that an enemy or rival is about to sit on a woodpile in which a poisonous snake is concealed.  The observer could simply say nothing and nobody would know that he’d allowed his rival to do something dangerous, and possibly die as a result.  With no risk of being caught or punished, arguably the hedonist has no reason to act in a way we’d normally consider ethical.

Hedonists will tend to respond by arguing that their moral conscience would cause them pain even if they were to harm others, etc., under cover of darkness, without any risk of being caught.  However, that’s also a weak argument.  Feelings of conscience are variable and it’s possible to suppress them, e.g., by using certain drugs or suppressing feelings of guilt.  Moreover, it’s well-established that many individuals simply do not experience the painful sting of conscience to a significant degree, e.g., people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, or even sociopaths.  So feelings of conscience are not a reliable guide to action in general, and in some cases they’re negligible or even completely absent.

As always, it may be that some people would accept the conclusion that as hedonists they can justify acting in ways most people would consider unethical, as long as there’s no risk of being caught and their conscience does not disturb them.  However, for the majority of people this will create a conflict with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.

4. Not Up to Us

Sensations like pain and pleasure are not under our direct control.  The most that we could do is will certain actions that appear likely to have pleasurable consequences.  The Stoics believe, however, that this is contradictory.  To judge something supremely “good”, good in the strong sense, is to desire to bring it about, and to judge something strongly “bad” is to desire to avoid it.  However, it’s arguably irrational to strongly desire something that it is not within our power to attain.  Strictly, speaking we can only wish to do what it is within our power to do, without endorsing two mutually incompatible opinions.  This line of reasoning, that good = desirable = attainable, appears similar to Kant’s principle that “Ought implies can.”  The majority of us certainly do typically desire many things that are unattainable in life, but the Stoics argue that this is contradictory and therefore irrational.

The Stoics argue that it’s more consistent and rational for adult humans to transfer supreme value to our own ability to make value judgments, i.e., reason.  (The Stoics call this our “ruling faculty” or hegemonikon.)   To reason well is to become wise, so moral wisdom (virtue) itself becomes the supreme good.

5. Hypocrisy

The Stoics also employed what cognitive therapists today call the “double standards” strategy to highlight contradictions in their interlocutors’ position.  They ask us to consider what qualities we most admire in others and compare those to the values we set for our own life and actions.  The majority of people don’t tend to praise or admire others who make pleasure their supreme goal in life.  In fact, we actually praise people more when they act virtuously in the face of pain and suffering.  However, it is arguably hypocritical to value different qualities in other people than we aspire to for ourselves.  This can be seen as yet another form of self-contradiction, that comes to light through careful reflection on our values.

Of course, as always, some people may accept this but deny that it’s problematic.  I’ve occasionally met people who say they feel strongly that it makes sense for them to want other people to have different values from their own.  Nevertheless, most people are sensitive to the notion that this is a form of hypocrisy and that tends to be something that provokes the to reconsider their position.  Another way of framing this criticism, employed by the Stoics, is to ask whether the hedonist would wish to live in a society of hedonists, to be surrounded by a community of other people whose supreme goal in life is to maximize their own pleasure.  Many people find this, at first glance, an appealing goal for themselves but they often feel uncomfortable about the idea that other people might hold those values because, e.g., they notice that their own life, and rights, would potentially be of questionable value in the eyes of other hedonists.  For instance, it’s often been pointed out that hedonists, especially in the ancient world, might plausibly conclude that they best way to maximize their own pleasure would be to own slaves.  However, if you happened to be one of those unfortunate enough to be enslaved you might start to wish that your owners had placed more value on human dignity and freedom than on their own experience of pleasure and freedom from pain.  The Stoics thought it was contradictory and irrational, though, for someone to endorse a set of values for themselves that they would potentially find objectionable if followed by other people.

Related to this are discussions of the hedonist view of friendship, which  appear to reduce all friendships to “fairweather” ones, as Seneca puts it.  The Stoics and other Socratics argue that we must treat our friends and loved ones as ends in themselves, in some sense, otherwise that falls short of anything we could call authentic friendship.  Ancient hedonists, by contrast, typically argued that friendship was a kind of social contract in which both parties show affection for each other only insofar as they believe its in their interest to do so, because it offers more opportunity for pleasure, or protection from pain.  However, that obviously makes friendship, or love for ones partner or children, problematic when it becomes a source of pain or distress.  A hedonist may feel motivated to completely abandon a relationship (“cut someone off”) if they believe it’s no longer pleasurable but to the majority of people that can appear selfish.  Again, it’s easier to see that as a tempting motive for one’s own actions but would you want your parents to love you, or your friends to care for you, only as long as they feel enough pleasure from doing so, and to potentially abandon you if the relationship caused them difficulty or pain.  Would a hedonist abandon a spouse dying of a terminal illness, for example?  For many people that would, at least prima facie, create a conflict with other moral intuitions.

6. Brain in Vat

If we assume that the most important thing in life is pleasure then try to imagine a situation in which that could be maximized, it often highlights the conflict with other common moral intuitions.  Suppose, for example, that your brain could be removed from your body and preserved indefinitely, with complete safety, in a vat, fed by nutrient fluids and chemicals that were carefully maintained to maximize your sense of pleasure.

In this thought experiment, more or less everything else is sacrificed from a “normal” life, for the sake of achieving maximum ongoing pleasure, and avoidance of pain or suffering.  This should be the naive hedonist’s ideal.  However, most people feel there’s something unappealing about this as a goal in life.  It clashes too much with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.  In conversations with modern Epicureans, I’ve often found that this thought-experiment appears problematic to them as well.  Although, as always, there may be some individuals who would say they’re perfectly happy to accept this sort of hedonistic “brain in vat” situation as the goal of life.

Another version of this criticism would be to imagine that a drug or neurosurgical procedure might become available that would guarantee our long-term pleasure and freedom from pain, but would reduce our IQ to the level of a dumb animal.  For the sake of argument, we can assume that for a fee our safety is ensured by caretakers.  Perhaps this is an expensive form of retirement available only to the super-rich.  For a fee, you can live out the rest of your life in total bliss, but you’d be rendered stupid at the same time.  A happy pig rather than an unhappy wise man.  Again, this tends to clash with people’s moral intuitions.  The Stoics were aware that most people, on reflection, are not willing to sacrifice their sanity or intelligence, for virtually any price.  They took this as support for their own claim that wisdom is the highest good, and goal of life.

7. Long-Term Hedonism

A common response from hedonists is to argue that some of those objections can be countered by qualifying the claim that pleasure is the goal of life by specifying that it’s about maximizing long-term pleasure, and minimizing pain or discomfort.  However, the Stoics and other ancient critics of hedonism realized that this was a weak defence.  It actually does nothing to answer any of the lines of criticism mentioned above, with the possible exception of the general point about hedonism being in conflict with other moral intuitions.  A hedonist might argue that if we were pursuing short-term pleasure then we might be led to do things that are typically considered unethical but that the pursuit of long-term pleasure means we’re more likely to act in an ethically praiseworthy manner.

Seneca and others point out, first of all, that this way of qualifying hedonism appears to make absolutely no difference if we specifically consider situations where there simply is no “long-term” subjective experience for us to care about, i.e., where our death is imminent.  A soldier fighting to protect the welfare of his wife and children, his friends and fellow countrymen, could not use his own “long-term” pleasure as a motive for acting courageously because if he dies then he’ll obviously be incapable of experiencing it.  For the Stoics, and other Socratic philosophers, virtue is its own reward, so courage in such situations would not depend on some consequence, which is thrown into question precisely because of the risk of death involved.  A Stoic should be motivated to act virtuously whether or not he faces death, whereas for most hedonists this situation is ethically problematic and would potentially cause him to reconsider his values.

8. Qualified Hedonism

The other typical defence of hedonism is to offer some qualification to the definition of pleasure as the supreme goal of life as a workaround.  For example, we might want to add the caveat that pleasure is the highest good, as long as it’s healthy, or as long as it’s compatible with the welfare of other people, etc.  That seems like an easy way to sidestep conflicts with other deep-seated moral convictions.

However, this solution is not quite so easy, on reflection.  If I say that pleasure is only the highest good insofar as it’s healthy, doesn’t it imply that I actually value health more highly than pleasure?  That pleasure isn’t really the highest good at all?  If I had to choose between them, which one would I sacrifice?  Once we qualify the definition of the supreme good in this way, it opens a whole can of worms.  We have to begin carefully reconsidering our values to identify where the highest good actually lies.  Again, different individuals will arrive at different conclusions but the point remains that this way of shoring up hedonism is problematic, and requires additional arguments to clarify and defend the revised position being proposed.