Socrates was a hugely important precursor of ancient Stoicism. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to later Stoicism and perhaps goes right back to Zeno himself. Epictetus makes far more references to Socrates than to any other philosopher. We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect.
In this article, I’ll look at three key ways in which Socrates inspired Stoicism. See my longer article on Socrates in Stoicism for more information, and lots more examples, though.
You may also be interested in my new Crash Course on Socrates. It’s completely free of charge and only takes about twenty minutes to complete:
1. It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them
Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. (Encheiridion, 5)
This is probably Epictetus’ most famous quote. It was often taught to clients in Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and early Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Many people think of it as distinctly Stoic. However, it’s a recurring theme in the Socratic dialogues. As it’s found both in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, it’s likely to have come from Socrates himself. Indeed, as you can see, Epictetus immediately follows this by using Socrates as an example. Epictetus notes that death cannot be intrinsically frightening because Socrates, and others, are not afraid of death.
Socrates employed the same simple little argument himself. If everyone doesn’t have the same emotional reaction to an event then the way we feel is probably determined by the way we think about it. For example, in Book One of The Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing old age with his elderly friend Cephalus. Cephalus notes that most people tend to complain about old age being a cause for misery but he disagrees, and he quotes a famous saying from Sophocles to show he disagreed as well. So Socrates and Cephalus jointly conclude that what matters is how we think about it, as those who approach old age with a positive attitude live with greater calm and happiness, like Cephalus.
Socrates himself was remarkably indifferent to the notorious temper tantrums of his young wife, Xanthippe. In one of Xenophon’s dialogues, he’s shown giving his eldest son, Lamprocles, advice about how to remain calm when his mother is being difficult. Socrates refers to the fact that actors aren’t upset when, on stage, other actors scream and yell abuse at them. Although Xanthippe has a sharp tongue, Lamprocles has no doubt that she loves him, and Socrates draws his attention to the fact he’s responding to the superficial impression her behaviour creates rather than to his knowledge of her good intentions. It’s not the other person’s behaviour that upsets us, he explains, but the way we think about it.
2. Model the behaviour of wise men
When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. (Encheiridion, 33)
Epictetus often advises his students to contemplate the behaviour of role models and to emulate them, particularly that of Socrates. However, this practice also comes from Socrates himself. Xenophon, for example, places great emphasis on the way that Socrates improved the character of others by the example he set in his own life. He even goes so far as to say that the memory of Socrates continued to help improve others after his death:
Indeed, even to recall him now that he is gone is no small help to those who were his habitual companions and who accept his views. (Memorabilia, 4.1)
Socrates frequently advises his students to seek out wise and virtuous individuals as friends. He clearly believes that good friends are far more important in life than possessions or money. That’s because he believed that we can learn most by sharing the company of good people and observing their behaviour. Socrates usually claimed to lack knowledge of virtue himself, and his attempts to arrive at verbal definitions of the virtues often end inconclusively. Nevertheless, he believed that virtue could be acquired by emulating the example set by others:
As for his views about what is right, so far from concealing them, he demonstrated them by his actions. (Memorabilia, 4.4)
3. The unexamined life is not worth living
Socrates in this way became perfect, in all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. (Encheiridion, 51)
The Stoics believed that we should live mindfully, paying continual attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon). This is also derived from their interpretation of Socrates. The Stoics place considerable emphasis on our ability to admit our weaknesses and fallibility, by reflecting on and criticizing our own character, in a constructive manner, in order to continually improve ourselves.
This then is the beginning of philosophy, a man’s perception of the state of his ruling faculty; for when a man knows that it is weak, then he will not employ it on things of the greatest difficulty. […] But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (Discourses, 1.28)
Epictetus relates this to what he called The Discipline of Assent, through which Stoics train themselves to question their initial impressions of things, and to suspend strong value judgements of the kind that cause emotional distress.
The third topic concerns the assents, which is related to the things which are persuasive and attractive. For as Socrates said, we ought not to live a life without examination, so we ought not to accept an appearance without examination, but we should say, Wait, let me see what you are and whence you come; like the watch at night (who says) Show me the pass (the Roman tessera). Have you the signal from nature which the appearance that may be accepted ought to have? (Discourses, 3.12)
The signal from nature that he’s talking about is what the Stoics call an “Objective Representation” (phantasia kataleptike). They basically meant that we should ensure we’re viewing events in an objective and matter-of-fact way, without projecting our (strong) value judgements onto them. In particular, they sought to avoid confusing external things –such as health, wealth, and reputation – with the highest good, and goal of life, which the Stoics, and apparently also Socrates, identified with virtue (arete).
It is his duty then to be able with a loud voice, if the occasion should arise, and appearing on the tragic stage to say like Socrates: Men, whither are you hurrying, what are you doing, wretches? like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without? (Discourses, 3.22)
We can only live wisely, though, by continually reflecting on the way we’re employing reason in daily life, from moment to moment.
Six years ago I wrote an article entitled “God or Atoms” about the question as to whether a modern follower of Stoicism can be an agnostic or an atheist. At the start I emphasized the following:
None of these Stoics appear to have been agnostics themselves but others may have been. What matters is whether they, and other Stoics, would have accepted that someone else could potentially be both an agnostic (or atheist) and a Stoic.
Well, little did I know how much uproar that would cause! Since I published it I’ve been periodically bombarded with comments, emails, and messages online from some surprisingly angry people who feel very strongly aggrieved because they claim I erred by (allegedly) saying that the ancient Stoics were atheists or agnostics. That, of course, is not what I said. We’re all familiar with religious fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and other world religions but it turns out that some individuals also want to approach Stoicism in pretty dogmatic (modern sense of the word) manner. I was somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash against my (imagined) transgressions, especially coming from other Stoics as we’re all meant to be pretty chill about these things, basically. Among other things, I was apparently a liar, a fraud, a bigot, and a charlatan, because of my views. Here’s a typical example of one email (from a barrage of seven sent in one day) that I received from one particular aggrieved individual who somehow perceived my personal agnosticism as “bullying” and aggressively “arguing down” his own “theistic” conception of Stoicism:
The funny part is that when I first came across you my impression was that you were a self serving egotistical person who had no real interest in Stoicism other than to promote your own business by using [Stoic Week] to give yourself some credibility. But I decided that as I did not really know you I would set such ideas aside and address you according to what you said. And what you, together with a number of other people, said came across as an attempt to argue down (bully?) any person that questioned the limitations of the Stoicism being presented, especially any person who addressed the theistic nature of Stoicism.
(For what it’s worth, my previous businesses, which were a CBT clinic in Harley Street and a psychotherapist training school in South London, had virtually nothing to do with my work on Stoicism, which I’ve now been studying for well over twenty years. And Stoic Week is a registered non-profit project run by volunteers. I can easily just ignore comments like these, and far worse that I’ve received, but I am concerned about other people, especially newcomers to Stoicism, being hounded and bullied online by some of the same individuals. That’s something that moderators, where possible, should step in to prevent. )
Over the past six years, I’ve received quite a lot of emails, PMs, and other comments like that, from various strangers on the Internet. (By the way, it never ceases to amaze me how well some people think they can read your mind and judge your character without ever having actually met you.) According to some of these (pretty angry) “religious” Stoics, I was being dishonest, and misrepresenting things on purpose, and refusing to answer questions or back up my claims. In fact, I spent many hours answering their questions about this topic online, probably far too many hours, trying to explain that my position was not what they seemed to believe! I have a policy, though, of politely withdrawing from conversations when people begin introducing personal attacks, like calling me a liar and stuff, which is what tended to happen when things got heated. One of the criticisms repeated many times by one of my most vocal critics was that my previous article didn’t include any references to modern scholars. I heard that a lot. Well, the article was actually intended to provide my own commentary on the primary sources. It contains dozens of references to passages in ancient texts, and it’s pretty big already, so I didn’t want to turn it into something the size of a doctoral thesis by adding more and more commentary from modern academic authors. It was just meant to be a short blog post! Nevertheless, he was wrong. It does, in fact, contain references to about six or seven modern authors/scholars who have written on Stoicism including Pierre Hadot, Frank McLynn, C.R. Haines, and John Sellars.
I got bombarded with angry comments about this again yesterday, though. So as it keeps coming up periodically I decided to sit down and write a statement explaining as clearly as possible my attitude toward religion, in relation to Stoicism. That way I can hopefully just send this to the people who want to argue about it rather than getting drawn into endless heated debates. (So if you want to find me, I’ll be in the garden listening to the radio and eating watermelon.) Anyway, once and for all, here are my personal opinions on this…
I do not hate religion. I’ve always been fascinated by it, in fact. I am an agnostic, leaning toward atheism, but I’m also very interested in and place great value upon all world religions. As a teenager I read the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Gnostic corpus from Nag Hammadi, which I studied very closely, and many Christian mystical texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, St. John of the Cross, and so on. It was actually my interest in Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism and Gnosticism that led me to study Stoicism. However, I was also particularly interested in Buddhism. As a student, I meditated daily, attended Buddhist retreats, and was secretary to the university Buddhist society. (I even have a Buddhist tattoo!) I practised yoga and read many yogic texts. Over the years, I also studied the Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, Chaung Tzu, and even the I Ching, and countless other Oriental scriptures. In fact, although my first degree is in philosophy, I also took courses in cultural anthropology, because I was interested in shamanism and animism. In addition, in the History of Religions department, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism, mainly focusing on the Gita and Dhammapada.
And not much has changed. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with comparative religion, which endures to this very day. It was first inspired by reading Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. The only major tradition about which I have to confess my ignorance is Islam because my studies in philosophy meant I didn’t have time to attend classes on it at university. As I noted earlier it was my interest in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism that led me to become interested in Stoicism, around the time I finished my philosophy degree, in 1996, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in studying the Stoic literature to this day.
However, I’m agnostic. I don’t know for certain whether God exists, whichever god that might mean. I think he probably doesn’t, because I don’t see much evidence of it, so I lean toward atheism. I don’t, however, hold that view strongly, because I might be wrong. I don’t believe that anyone can know with certainty that God exists and so I view it as ultimately an indifferent question with regard to the goal of life, because it seems to me to requires speculation or a judgement based on probability. And so I don’t really mind whether anyone agrees with me or not in that regard. It’s a matter of indifference to me. (So I’ll be glad when I’ve finished writing this piece if it means I don’t have to keep arguing with angry people on the Internet about it!) 😉
With regard to Stoicism. I have always accepted (like everyone else) that most of the ancient Stoics believed in a provident God called Zeus. Cleanthes, of course, wrote a famous Hymn to Zeus, in which he literally instructed his Stoic students to sing hymns of praise to Zeus, their divine father, creator, and benefactor:
Most glorious of Immortals, mighty God,
Invoked by many a name, O sovran King
Of universal Nature, piloting
This world in harmony with Law,—all hail!
Now, I cannot honestly say with certainty that “all of the ancient Stoics” believed in this for the simple reason that only about 1% of the Stoic literature survives, and there were loads of Stoics, with different beliefs, in different countries, spanning a period of half a millennium. Stoicism was, and still is, a philosophy not a religion. Perhaps others will disagree with my definition of the word “religion”, which is fine, but by that I mean that Stoicism encouraged its followers to question their assumptions very deeply, using the Socratic method, which inevitably meant that the school tolerated considerable disagreement about stuff like theology. (Sorry but the fact is it did.) Traditionally Stoicism also believed in divination, because it followed from their conception of Zeus as provident, organizing and planning the world in a causally determined manner, that the future could be predicted by priests who knew how to read the entrails of sacrificial animals and whatnot. (Like tea-leaf reading but a bit messier.)
What is more, they say that divination in all its forms is a real and substantial fact, if there is really Providence. And they prove it to be actually a science on the evidence of certain results: so Zeno, Chrysippus in the second book of his De divinatione, Athenodorus, and Posidonius in the second book of his Physical Discourse and the fifth book of his De divinatione. But Panaetius denies that divination has any real existence. (Diogenes Laertius)
Strangely, though, even the most ardent proponents of “traditional Stoicism” today don’t seem to go so far as to employ ancient divination. Ancient Stoics were also free to reject the whole concept divination, though, because philosophical beliefs are based on reason and subject to constant questioning, whereas religious beliefs, according to my definition at least, tend to be based primarily on faith or cultural traditions. For what it’s worth, that would mean that some types of Buddhism might be better described as a philosophy rather than a religion, although there are other forms of Buddhism that appear to me more like the Judaeo-Christian religions. (Buddhism is a huge and very diverse tradition, of course.)
There were certainly Greek philosophers who rejected or at least radically questioned belief in the gods. (No, seriously there were; such as Theodorus the Atheist for a start, who was a contemporary of Zeno of Citium.) So given the paucity of evidence to the contrary I would say it’s possible that at least one or two guys out of the thousands of ancient Stoics may not have been 100% sure that God exists but, again, whether they did or not is basically indifferent to me. We know that most Stoics were pantheists who believed the whole universe was a single, perfectly rational, living organism called Zeus who cared providentially for humankind. I don’t believe that. We do also know that some famous ancient Stoics didn’t believe that either and substituted other theological beliefs instead, which appears to confirm that the school tolerated diverse opinions and wasn’t rigidly doctrinaire in this regard.
Example #1: Aristo of Chios rejected the importance of theology completely and was considered a renegade or “heterodox Stoic“. Cicero says he was “in a state of complete uncertainty” about whether or not God was alive (“animate”), because he denied God could have sensation (presumably because he has no eyes or ears, etc.) and Aristo also couldn’t conceive of his form. However, there’s no reference to Aristo actually leaving the school or joining another school. (Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was inspired centuries later to commit his life to Stoicism after reading Aristo’s books.)
Example #2: Boethus of Sidon was a famous Stoic best known for having totally rejected Stoic pantheism but, again, there’s no indication that he was booted out of the school for that. He believed in God but not the pantheistic Zeus of the early Stoics. That was okay because Stoicism was always a philosophy and encouraged Socratic questioning and not a religion based primarily on faith or tradition, or if you prefer it wasn’t a rigidly orthodox and doctrinaire type of religion.
So can you be a Stoic and be an agnostic or even an atheist? The short answer is that I think it’s an indifferent question. If someone managed to persuade me that I couldn’t call myself a “Stoic” if I happen to be agnostic then I’d probably say “Sure, fine, I’ll just call myself something else” and it wouldn’t really ruin my day too much, to be honest. (I’m still waiting to be persuaded.) However, as it happens, I believe that the ancient Stoics considered the central doctrine of their philosophy, as we’re repeatedly told, to be their definition of the nature of the good: virtue is the only true good. It seems to me that as long as you believe that then you’re pretty much a Stoic, whatever else you believe, within reason. It’s all good! It’s crystal clear from the ancient Stoic texts that the definition of the supreme good as virtue was the central doctrine of their school. Cicero calls it the cornerstone of their whole philosophy, for example.
Suppose, hypothetically, that there were such a thing as a modern-day agnostic Sage, someone exceptionally wise, just, courageous, and temperate, who called himself a “Stoic” but who happened to feel it’s impossible to be certain whether or not God exists. He believes that Darwinism and modern scientific cosmology provide a sufficiently plausible explanation for why things around us look almost as though they were designed by an invisible craftsman to work the way they do. So he rejects Zeno’s use of the Argument from Design, in other words, and doesn’t accept that it conclusively proves a provident God exists, called Zeus, who planned everything and cares about humankind. (How many people today do actually believe in the Argument from Design apart from Christian fundamentalists?)
Let’s suppose we had a time machine and could send our perfect “Stoic” back in time to meet Marcus Aurelius. So he’s perfectly wise and just, courageous and temperate, but he’s not sure about the whole Zeus thing. Would Marcus Aurelius say: “Get out of here you fake, you’re not a real Stoic!” I don’t know. Neither do you. I’d guess probably not, though. Why? Because he was a philosopher, first and foremost, and not a religious fundamentalist. Marcus, like other Stoics, believed that virtue is the only true good, and that someone virtuous is therefore good, and could be a Sage, perhaps even if they happen to be uncertain whether Zeus is real or not, or to agree with Zeno and Cleanthes on the theological details.
As most people who have actually read The Meditations tend to notice, Marcus refers to “God or atoms”, or a similar trope, about ten times. (C.R. Haines, his translator, says nine but I’m pretty sure I spotted another one he missed.) Example: “Recall once again this alternative: if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms…” (4.3). Similar figures of speech are also found in Seneca and Epictetus, all three of our major surviving sources for Stoicism, so personally I take that to suggest this was most likely a very well-known Stoic argument and probably came from an earlier source all three share in common. (As the other two don’t appear to have read Seneca’s philosophical writings, I doubt they were just deriving it from him.) I appreciate other people may believe these passages could be interpreted differently but my belief is that Marcus is saying to himself that even if he didn’t believe that the whole universe was being planned and organized by a provident God called Zeus, who cares about humankind, even if it was all just the chance product of the random collision of atoms, like many people believe today, Stoic Ethics would still be rational and justified in that world. In his “God or atoms” passages, Marcus says that even if we live in a godless world just the random aimless collision of atoms, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are not aimless ourselves but have virtue as our goal (9.28), because we have our ruling faculty (hegemonikon) to guide us using reason (12.14), and we can still view ourselves as part of the whole and akin, like a brother, to all other rational beings (10.6), therefore we would still have no reason to complain or feel harassed (8.17; 9.39). The people who want to argue that Stoic ethics is inconceivable without belief in God either just completely ignore these and other related passages or they tie themselves in knots trying to interpret Marcus as meaning the opposite of what he actually said, ten times.
How on earth, you may ask, could Marcus possibly believe that Stoic Ethics might be plausible without reference to God? (Or at least people who are really religious sometimes say that.) Well, blow me down if the Cynic philosophy, from which Stoicism itself emerged, didn’t consist of a fundamentally similar ethical doctrine, that virtue is the only true good, without any reference to theology. (As did other ancient philosophies.) Diogenes the Cynic is variously portrayed as saying that the gods don’t exist, that they do exist, or that he’s not sure. He didn’t care, basically. The Cynics, funnily enough, had a notoriously cynical (small c) attitude toward all forms of religion, which they sneered at in all sorts of ways. Diogenes thought it was hilarious, for example, that people would pray for good health rather than just adopting a healthy way of living. He reputedly used a wooden statue of the god Hercules as firewood to cook his lentils. That’s probably just story that people made up but nevertheless, you get the point. (Hercules was originally a Greek hero and demi-god, incidentally, but according to some versions of the myth Zeus granted him an apotheosis, making him a god in his own right.) The Cynics, the legendary forerunners of Stoicism, were generally perceived as thumbing their noses at all forms of religion and as regarding the question of God’s existence with fundamental indifference, because it was totally irrelevant to their conception of virtue and their philosophical way of life.
Marcus quite possibly, at least in my reading of the evidence, started off as a Cynic before becoming a Stoic. He certainly knew Cynics and had read about Cynic philosophy, which he mentioned in The Meditations. So the notion that you could believe in virtue ethics without bringing God into the equation would hardly have come as a massive surprise to him, contrary to what some people might want to tell you. He knew fine well that lots of philosophers, throughout the centuries, held broadly similar ethical views to his own but didn’t use the existence of Providence as justification for them. As mentioned above, his private letters appear to state that he was finally convinced to dedicate his life to philosophy after reading Aristo of Chios, a Stoic who totally rejected the study of theology. So these observations probably explain why Marcus keeps banging on about “God or atoms” in his private notes: he’s reminding himself that even if doubts do creep into his mind about religion, it shouldn’t cause his Stoicism to waver. He knows, from the example of countless other philosophers, that he still has sufficient reason to live virtuously with or without Providence looking over his shoulder.
Moreover, Marcus and the other Stoics didn’t live in a bubble. They knew about other philosophies. Marcus had also studied Platonism and Aristotelianism under private tutors in the imperial household for years and he’d read Cicero and Lucretius the Epicurean, and presumably a load of other stuff we’ve never even heard of because he was a highly-educated and intelligent man, with a lot of books at his disposal. He wasn’t a dunce. He knew that Skeptical arguments could easily be used to challenge traditional arguments for the existence of God, like the Argument for Design. (“Everything looks like it must have been designed by someone, therefore it was.” – really?) He clearly believed in God but he also realized some people didn’t and that Skeptical arguments had been widely circulated for many centuries that could challenge or refute the traditional Stoic reasons for believing in Providence. So, presumably like many Stoics before him, he bolstered his Stoicism by providing himself with the argument that even if someone logically persuaded him that Providence doesn’t exist and the world is just the pretty side-effect of a load of atoms bouncing around, like the Epicureans and other atomists said, it doesn’t really matter because he could still carry on being virtuous and a Stoic anyway, as long as he follows his own nature, by living in accord with reason.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems fairly obvious to me that’s what he meant when he says repeatedly that whether “God or atoms” explain the universe, either way he should follow Stoic Ethics . (See my previous article by the way for all the references to these passages, and everything else I’ve mentioned.) I think that’s why the Stoics were able to consider individuals like Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes the Cynic to be wise and virtuous even though they didn’t share the same theological beliefs as the Stoic school. If Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic walked into Epictetus’ school and said “Hey can I be a Stoic?” would Epictetus boot them out saying “No because you’re not certain that Zeus exists and is provident, get lost!” I don’t know. Neither do you. I’d guess probably not, though.
The ancient Stoics believed that virtue is the only true good, and that’s the central doctrine or cornerstone of their whole philosophy. I think virtually all of them must have believed in a provident God called Zeus but there might have been one or two, over the 500 year period we’re talking about, who weren’t sure because they were doing philosophy and using the Socratic method of questioning rather than just indoctrinating their students into religious dogmas based on the teacher’s say-so. None of the Stoics claimed to have that kind of absolute authority. None of them claimed to be wise: that’s why it’s called the Stoic school and wasn’t (except for a short spell) named Zenonism after Zeno (Zenon in Greek), its founder. There is no Stoic pope. You do philosophy and if you arrive at the same conclusions as them then you might as well call yourself a Stoic. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but if you want to be a Stoic you’re going to have to actually do philosophy. Turns out Stoicism is not a personality cult like Epicureanism or Pythagoreanism were (sorry guys!) and you might actually have to think for yourself rather than just rote learn the sayings of the founders and repeat them like a parrot.
What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. (Seneca, Letter 33)
Epictetus is even more emphatic. He repeatedly warns his students that reading the books of famous Stoics such as Chrysippus and committing their teachings to memory is just another vice, a sort of intellectual vanity, unless they actually learn to think for themselves and apply philosophical reasoning in daily life. He says that the real evidence of having learned Stoicism should be visible in someone’s ability to master his fears and desires, like the physique of an athlete is evidence of their training. We should judge him by the signs of virtue he exhibits in life, not by his ability to recite a catechism of “orthodox” Stoic dogmas – indeed, that would be absurd.
In any case, by the time Marcus Aurelius was around the whole Stoic movement was pretty loosely defined and leaderless but he was still famous, even in his own lifetime as a “Stoic” philosopher. If Marcus Aurelius woke up one day and said “Hmmmm… God or atoms? You know, I’m not 100% sure about that bit anymore but I still agree with the rest of it” would people have stopped calling him a Stoic? Probably not, right? As long as he still lived like a Stoic, exhibited the Stoic virtues, and was committed to the belief that virtue is the only true good. To hear some people talk these days, you’d think there were “Stoic police” going around making sure of everyone’s Stoic orthodoxy but, guess what, there weren’t! In Marcus Aurelius’ day there wasn’t even a leader of the Stoic school so there was nobody with the authority to enforce any sort of rigid orthodoxy any more than there is today – thank goodness. The last Stoic scholarch (head of the school) was Panaetius and he’s been pushing up daisies, six feet under, since the second century BC, nearly three hundred years before the time of Marcus Aurelius.
At the end of the day, though, it’s fundamentally indifferent whether you call yourself a “Stoic” or not. The only advantage is that you can more easily hang out with other fascinating people who like to call themselves “Stoic”, most of whom happen to be agnostics or atheists anyway, whether the fundamentalist-types like that or not. By contrast, if you said “I’m totally into everything Marcus Aurelius said and I try to live my life by it but I’m not actually a real Stoic because I don’t worship Zeus” most people would probably look at you like you were crazy. By the way, people who are really into religion and Stoicism nevertheless vary tremendously in their level of commitment to the ancient traditions. One guy got really annoyed with me for using the phrase “worship Zeus” although that’s literally what the ancient Stoics were talking about. I pointed out to him that another guy I’d been arguing with online actually had a profile picture of himself dressed in the robes of an ancient Greek priest and that he did literally worship the Greek gods. (Over the years I’ve met quite a few modern-day individuals who combine Stoicism with Hellenistic religious practices.) At the other end of the scale someone who was arguing with me about how all Stoics absolutely must believe in divine Providence suddenly changed his tune after admitting that he didn’t know what the word “Providence” means (pronoia in Greek) and I showed him a dictionary definition. “Oh, if that’s what it means then, no, I don’t actually believe in it; sorry for bothering you.” Often, I find that the more determined someone is to argue to the death about something on the Internet the more likely it is that they probably haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. There are plenty of people online who will argue with you about Stoicism until they’re blue in the face and call you all sorts of idiots if you don’t agree with them. Then, a few hours, or days, later they’ll casually admit they’ve not actually got round to reading any books on the subject yet. That’s life, folks: welcome to the Internet!
So, anyway, if you’ve got to the end of this and you’re a super-religious Stoic who’s still really angry with me for not being sure whether God exists or not then, well, thanks at least for your patience. I really don’t hate you or anything you believe. I’m just not 100% sure you’re right. I also think that, especially as Stoics, we should all be more tolerant of others who happen to disagree with our beliefs. In any case, being so angry and sending me these emails and messages calling me names probably just does you more harm than good, my friend. If you ever want to talk about it in a sort of friendly dispassionate way feel free to get in touch, though. Thanks! 😉
Just out of curiosity, I polled my Facebook group for Stoicism to find out their religious views. Surprisingly, most of those who responded (n=663) are atheists, and agnostics like me are not the majority.
- 50% – I’m an atheist.
- 29% – I’m an agnostic.
- 14% – I believe God exists but I don’t believe he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.
- 8% – I believe God exists and he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.
So 78% are either atheists or agnostics, although they’re “into” Stoicism, and only 22% believe in God, either Stoic-style Zeus or some other definition.
According to legend, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after reading Book Two of Xenophon’s famous Memorabilia of Socrates. The second chapter of this book portrays Socrates engaging in a short Socratic dialogue with his own son, Lamprocles. It may have been a conversation Xenophon actually witnessed, or heard about from Socrates. It gives us some interesting insights into Socrates’ attitudes toward parenting and his relationship with his own son.
Socrates had three sons, by his notoriously hot-tempered wife Xanthippe, of whom Lamprocles was the eldest. Lamprocles was a young boy when Socrates was executed; two younger brothers, Menexenus and Sophroniscus, were still small children, at least one of them carried by Xanthippe like a baby.
According to Xenophon, Socrates one day noticed that Lamprocles was becoming increasingly irritable with Xanthippe, his mother. So he decided to employ the Socratic method of questioning to help improve his son’s relationship with her. Socrates’ method consists mainly in asking questions, although he sometimes ends up offering practical advice on what to do if the other person gets stuck. I’ve paraphrased the discussion below, and inserted a few comments, although I’ve stayed very close to the original dialogue.
Part One: Katharsis
Socrates begins by asking his son, Lamprocles, what we typically mean when call someone ungrateful. He asks “What do people do to earn this name?” Lamprocles says that we call someone ungrateful if they’ve been treated well and could show gratitude in return but don’t. Socrates asks him if that means ingratitude is a bad thing and Lamprocles agrees that it is. So from the outset they have both agreed this definition as common ground upon which to begin working.
Then Socrates asks a trickier question: Could it perhaps be that it’s wrong to show ingratitude toward our friends but right to show ingratitude to our enemies? He asks that question, incidentally, because Lamprocles would have been familiar with a Greek saying that a good man helps his friends and harms his enemies, which Socrates thought was a very wrong-headed way of understanding justice.
Lamprocles says he’s thought about this already and disagrees with it, perhaps because he’s heard Socrates’ criticisms of this view. (We can almost imagine him thinking “Hmmm… I’ve heard this one before.”) So instead the boy says that whether someone is a friend or an enemy, either way, as long as we’ve received a favour from them then we should show them gratitude in return. They both agree that being ungrateful to anyone, friend or enemy, who does you favour would be the height of injustice. Socrates asks if that means that the greater a favour someone receives without showing gratitude in return, the more unjust they are being, and his son agrees.
Well, says Socrates, what greater favour could there be than that shown by parents to their children? Parents benefit their children by having them and giving them their very existence. So every other good thing they can possibly experience depends upon that fact. My six-year-old daughter Poppy’s comment on this is that it’s like saying we should be grateful to the man who built our house because we can eat in it and watch television and sleep, and it gives us the space to do other good things. Indeed, Socrates says, most people believe that their own life is so valuable that they would do anything to hang on to it. The greatest crimes were punished by the death sentence in Athens because everyone assumed life was the most precious thing and nobody wanted to lose it. (Of course, elsewhere Socrates himself questions whether death is an evil and there’s a hint of irony here because we all know he later receives the death penalty from an Athenian court himself.)
Socrates reminds Lamprocles that parents sacrifice a lot because they want to have children. Mothers carry around the weight of the baby inside them for months and then, in ancient Greece, they actually risk their own lives in giving birth to them. Socrates mother, Phaenarete, was reputedly a midwife, an esteemed middle-class profession in Athens. His empathy with mothers here, surprising for a man of his time, perhaps hints at Phaenarete’s influence on him. Once a baby is born, he says, its mother feeds it and cares for it, even though it has never done her any favours. The baby doesn’t even know anything about its parents yet but still receives their care and attention. For years, the mother has to go through all sorts of drudgery, day and night, rearing her infant without knowing whether she’ll ever receive any gratitude in return. Not only do the parents care for the child by clothing and feeding them but they also try to educate them. They try to share any knowledge with them that they think might be important. If they think it would be better taught by someone else, they pay for teachers and coaches as well. So there are lots of reasons to grateful, at least to a typical conscientious mother like Xanthippe.
This sounds like it’s at risk of turning into a bit of a finger-wagging sermon on being grateful to your mother for everything she’s sacrificed, etc., although maybe quite a reasonable and articulate one. Lamprocles isn’t convinced, though. He says, “Well, all that might be true, but nevertheless you can’t expect anyone to put up with her temper!” He’s trying to say that negates everything else. This leads Socrates into an interesting examination of how to cope with difficult people. If it’s much easier to deal with Xanthippe’s temper than their son assumes then he’s got no reason to be ungrateful to her, given everything else she’s done for him. Her sharp-tongue becomes something trivial. Indeed, elsewhere we’re told that even when she threw cold water over Socrates or tore the shirt from his back in public, he just shrugged it off with indifference.
Next Socrates asks the odd-sounding question: Is it harder to bear with the ferocity of a wild beast or with that of your own mother? Lamprocles say “With a mother, if she’s like mine!” That’s interesting and perhaps the key point at stake for them both. Lamprocles is half-joking. When people are half-joking about what upsets them, that’s often a signal. It often means they’ve said something that they believe emotionally although they realize logically that it can’t actually be true. We often use humour to mask the contradictions in our thinking. Socrates doesn’t let his son off the hook, though…
He asks: Has your mother ever injured you by biting or kicking, like wild animals do? “Of course not”, says the boy, “but she says things you wouldn’t want to put up with every day of the week.” Socrates points out that his son has actually been doing things all his life that worry and upset his mother, so he should remember it cuts both ways. “Yes,” says Lamprocles, “but I’ve never said or done anything to make her ashamed of me.”
Then Socrates says something very peculiar indeed: Do you think it’s harder for you to listen to the things your mother says than it is for actors in tragedies when they’re yelling abuse at one another? (If I remember right, he uses the same argument somewhere else as well.) We might think he’s come very close here to the familiar English adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” This profound indifference to criticism from others is an aspect of Socrates’ original philosophy that may have influenced Antisthenes and the Cynics, and later the Stoics.
Lamprocles quite naturally responds “That’s all well and good but actors in tragedies don’t actually believe that those verbally abusing them intend to punish or harm them.” They’re just pretending, playing a role on the sage. It’s make-believe. This is where Socrates finally reveals his hand, though. “Yes and you do get angry with your mother,” he says, “even though you know well enough that she doesn’t intend to harm you either, any more than the the performers arguing on stage mean to harm one another.” Here Socrates is reminding Lamprocles of something he’s already acknowledged, which contradicts what he’s now trying to say. Even though Xanthippe gets angry and can be argumentative, it’s not devoid of any kind intention. Paradoxically, it’s because she loves her son and wants to do him good. “Or do you imagine”, asks Socrates, “that she means to harm you?” Lamprocles acknowledges that she doesn’t.
Xanthippe wants to help her son. Socrates reminds Lamprocles that she always does her best to look after him when he’s sick, and tends to his every need. She’s always praying to the gods for his welfare. For Lamprocles to say that his mother is unbearable is therefore to say that what actually does him good is unbearable. So, in a nutshell, it’s not someone’s words that should concern us, no matter how sharp-tongued they’re being, but their real underlying intentions. As Lamprocles genuinely accepts that his mother doesn’t intend to harm him then why should he be bothered by her bluster? He should remind himself that it’s just a misleading appearance like the actors yelling verbal abuse at one another on stage. This recalls one of Socrates’ most famous analogies, when he elsewhere compares our fear of death to that of small children who are frightened by grotesque masks. The wise man removes the mask and inspecting what’s behind it finds nothing terrifying. He looks beyond surface appearances, and that’s what Lamprocles should learn to do when Xanthippe is screaming and shouting at him.
Part Two: Functional Analysis
Socrates then shifts perspective, adopting a new line of argument. The first part of the dialogue helps Lamprocles to question his initial impression that Xanthippe’s behaviour is awful or intolerable and to perceive it with greater indifference. That’s a typical strategy in both Socratic philosophy and Stoicism. Next, Socrates draws his son’s attention to the negative consequences of his old way of looking at things. Again, this is a familiar strategy, both Socratic and Stoic. Imagining the broader and longer-term consequences of some course of action is still used today as a way of evaluating it and building motivation to change.
Socrates asks: Do you think there’s anyone else in life who deserves your respect? Lamprocles admits that there are, of course, people such as teachers, military officers, city officials, etc., whom it’s appropriate to respect and obey. He also asks Lamprocles whether he wants to be liked by his neighbours. “So that he may offer you a light for your fire when you need one,” says Socrates, “or contribute to your success and give you prompt and friendly help should you ever meet with misfortune.” Take the example of a fellow traveller, or anyone else you might encounter, he adds. Would it make no difference to you whether he became your friend or your enemy? He asks if Lamprocles should care at all whether the people he meets in life want to help him or harm him. He agrees that we should prefer people to have goodwill toward us, where possible.
So you think it’s worthwhile concerning yourself with whether strangers are friendly toward you, says Socrates, and yet not to be concerned for your relationship with your mother, who loves you more than anyone else does? He mentions that the Athenian state doesn’t normally punish ingratitude but that people who show disregard for their parents are penalized and debarred from holding public office. This is because such offices often involved offering traditional sacrifices to the gods, which requires someone known for possessing good character. The Athenians didn’t trust men who disrespected their own parents. Indeed, Socrates notes, even someone who fails to tend the graves of his dead parents might have that held as a serious charge against him when applying for public office.
So my son, Socrates concludes, if you’re prudent you’ll ask the gods to forgive you for any disregard you’ve shown toward your mother in the past, and you’ll take care that your fellow Athenians don’t observe you neglecting your parents in the future. That’s a sure fire way to lose their respect and friendship, he adds, as they’re bound to conclude, if they think about it, that from someone who has shown ingratitude toward his own parents nobody can expect to receive gratitude in return for doing them a favour.
One of the most popular downloads on my e-learning site is a PDF guide called the Stoic Therapy Toolkit. This is a five-page summary of a daily routine and some key Stoic psychological practices. Here are the four Stoic meditation techniques it includes:
Premeditation of Adversity (praemeditatio malorum). Practice imagining different “catastrophes” that could befall you, as if they’re happening now, while maintaining Stoic objectivity and indifference toward them, focusing on the distinction between what is up to you and what is not, and allowing sufficient time for your initial feelings to abate naturally. Consider how a Stoic sage would respond to the same events.
Contemplation of Death (melete thanatou). Periodically reflect on your own mortality, viewing it dispassionately, and as both natural and inevitable. Each morning remind yourself that the day ahead could be your last; each evening imagine viewing the day behind you as if it were your last. Try to live grounded in the present moment, appreciating the gift of life as if you’re a guest at a festival or banquet, which you know will only last for a short while.
Contemplation of the Whole. Imagine the whole world as if seen from high above, like the gods looking down from Mount Olympus. Alternatively, try to imagine the whole of space and time, and your place within things. Consider also the transience of all material things, and the small span of time that human life lasts.
Contemplation of the Sage. Imagine the example of the ideal Stoic wise man or woman, and how they would cope with different challenges in life. Try to put their attitudes into words, which you can memorize as short sayings or maxims. Likewise consider examples such as Socrates, Zeno, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius or other specific role models from history, fiction, or your own life.
If you want a copy of the whole PDF, you can download it for free by clicking the button below:
If you’re completely new to Stoicism, it’s a good place to start. However, we can’t compress the whole philosophy into a few pages, it’s just a summary, so you will need to read the Stoics to gain a more complete understanding of their concepts and techniques.
Very useful summary, I will carry it in my work bag! – Camelia Vasilov
Excellent! Thank you for your tireless work in making this valuable philosophy so accessible in our busy world. – Deborah L Gariepy
This printable PDF document will give you a good overview of Stoicism, and a reminder of daily practices. Many people contributed to the wording and Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer, has given it a new look. So we’re confident you’ll appreciate the end result and find it valuable as a guide to living like a Stoic. I’d love to know what you think. People have already started leaving feedback online.
Thanks, looks beautiful. Can’t spare a tip but bought one of your books. 🙂 – Vince
Thank you! Clear, concise, practical and actionable. No matter how busy or preoccupied one is (or has to be) during the day, store this kit in your memory, incorporate these quick contemplations, and the tools will adapt to any occasion! – Gaelle1947
- The Goal of Virtue
- Daily Routine
- Four Stoic Meditations
- Therapy of the Passions
Introducing my new online mini-course about the life and teachings of Socrates, which is completely free of charge and designed for newcomers who want to learn more about his philosophy.
Welcome to my brand new mini-course on the life and philosophy of Socrates, one of my favourite philosophers!
This is a totally free of charge online course, which I’ve kept short and sweet for newcomers. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete, although there are loads of bonus materials included if you want to learn more. So please take a look at the main page to find out more and feel free to share it with your friends online.
- My video on the life and philosophy of Socrates, with full transcript
- My favourite Socratic quotations from Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon, and Plato
- A short quiz on the life and opinions of Socrates
- A recommended reading list for those who want to learn more
You’ll also receive two bonus resources:
- The Life and Opinions of Socrates, a downloadable e-book containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius
- Socrates HD Wallpapers, five high-quality computer desktop wallpapers with quotes from Socrates
This course is suitable for everyone, you don’t need to know anything about the subject to enroll. Just go ahead and try it out.
Thanks as always for your support!
Many people assume that Stoicism is synonymous with being unemotional. I think this is often because they confuse stoicism (lower-case), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait, with Stoicism (upper-case) the school of Greek philosophy. (Here’s an article explaining the difference.) In fact, the Stoics teach us how to replace unhealthy emotions with healthy ones, and the latter play an important role in their philosophy. They have a system for classification of both. The Stoic term “passion” actually encompasses both what we call desires and emotions and the healthy ones, termed eupatheiai by the Stoics, are divided into three broad categories:
- Joy or delight (chara), the enjoyment of perceiving goodness in ourselves and others, which is the healthy alternative to hedonistic pleasure; we’re told it includes both feelings of cheerfulness (euphrosunos) and peaceful contentment (euthumia).
- Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a healthy and rational aversion to vice, which we might perhaps compare to feelings of conscience; we’re told it includes dignity or self-respect (aidô) and a sense of aversion to what is profane or impure (agneia)
- Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a healthy and rational desire for what is good, or goodwill toward ourselves and others, perhaps encompassing a rational form of love or friendship; we’re told it includes benevolence (eunoia), kindness (eumeneia), acceptance (aspasmos) and affection (agapêsis)
Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, a kind of side-effect of them. He also describes them as being more transitory than virtues. Hence, these sort of healthy feelings and desires are not the goal of Stoicism per se but rather a byproduct of the underlying attitudes that constitute genuine wisdom and goodness. We can nevertheless say that the ideal Stoic Sage is someone who feels relatively calm and cheerful in the face of adversity, has a sense of dignity or conscience that prevents him doing what he senses is wrong, and feels goodwill, a sense of kindness, and even affection toward others, and presumably also toward himself.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Stoics typically held up Socrates as their supreme role model and it’s easy to see how he might fit this description. Far from being stuffy or a cold fish, Socrates is generally portrayed as a very lively character. Both Xenophon and Plato wrote dialogues entitled the Symposium where he is depicted drinking and feasting with his friends. Indeed, Xenophon opens by saying that he thinks it’s important not only to portray great men in more serious situations, presumably with the trial and execution of Socrates in mind, but also to show the sort of people they were during lighter moments, enjoying banter with their friends. Plato even notes that Socrates looked like Silenus, the mythic drunken tutor of Dionysus (shown above), who exemplified both humour and wisdom.
Indeed, Socrates is cheerful and good humoured, even in the face of adversity such as facing his own execution. He’s kind and gentle toward his friends, and treats them with obvious affection. Socrates was also famously guided by a mysterious daimonion or inner voice, which warned him not to undertake certain courses of action. I think we can obviously compare this to the Stoic concept of eulabeia, a healthy feeling of aversion to folly and wrongdoing. The Stoics point to Socrates as an example of their ideal so the vivid descriptions of his character found in Plato and Xenophon, etc., undoubtedly help us to interpret what the Stoics have in mind when speaking of the “healthy passions” exhibited by the wise.
However, I also want to say something about three sources of joy described by Marcus Aurelius in The Meditations, as I think these help to shed some light on what the Stoics had in mind. First of all, Marcus says the wise man’s sense of delight comes from one thing alone: acting consistently in accord with wisdom and virtue (6.7). This certainly appears to be the most important source of joy for Stoics but Marcus also mentions two others. These three types of joy correspond to a recurring threefold structure that should be very familiar to readers of The Meditations:
- Contemplating virtue in ourselves. Marcus describes this as the primary source of both “serenity” and “joy” for the Stoic Sage (7.28).
- Contemplating virtue in others. However, he also tells says that when he wants to gladden his heart, he should meditate on the good qualities of those close to him, such as modesty, generosity, etc. (6.48).
- Welcoming our fate (amor fati). Marcus tells himself that rather than desiring things that are absent, as the majority do, he should train himself to develop gratitude by reflecting on the pleasant aspects of what he already has before him, and contemplate how he would miss them if they were not there (7.27).
The second source of joy for Stoics, the contemplation of virtue in others, is presumably related to religious sentiments such as piety or love of Zeus, as well as love of the ideal Sage. Likewise, in Book One of The Meditations, Marcus seems to provide numerous examples of virtues among his family members and teachers, which gladden his heart in this way. Contemplating the virtue of others was an important source of inspiration for ancient Stoics. They recognized that we learn by emulating the examples set by others, role models such as Socrates or Zeno, whose characters we admire. Students once enjoyed the company of teachers such as these and were inspired by knowing them in person.
The third source of joy is perhaps the one most often overlooked in discussions of Stoicism. So it’s worth quoting the key passage in full:
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. (7.27)
The word Marcus actually uses here to describe a healthy and moderate sense of enjoyment in those external things that deserve to be valued is charis or gratitude. It is is related to chara the more general word for the healthy passion of Stoic joy. He means the kind of gratitude that we would experience when we perceive that someone has done us a favour or shown goodwill toward us. (If like the Stoics, we think of Zeus or Nature as being providential and caring for our welfare, then this would resemble Christian joy in the grace [charis] of God.)
Marcus seems to be saying here that in addition to rejoicing in virtue, his own and that of others, the Sage will experience joy or gratitude by contemplating what Stoics call “preferred indifferents”. These are external things to which it’s reasonable to assign value (axia), within reasonable bounds, such as health, property, and friendship. External things such as these aren’t strictly “good” because they don’t contribute directly to the goal of wisdom and virtue but it is nevertheless rational to prefer health over sickness, life over death, property over poverty, and friendship over having enemies, etc.
For Stoics, the two most valued externals or preferred indifferents are life and the company of friends who are wise and good. These are probably the two things for which we should be most grateful, as they’re both externals granted to us by fortune. There are many things such as food and shelter which contribute to life and Stoics are grateful for these insofar as they have value in supporting life, providing us with the opportunity to flourish by acquiring wisdom and virtue. However, as Marcus emphasized above, we should not become so attached to them that we would be distressed if they were lost.
The attitude we should seek to cultivate is described by Epictetus in the Handbook and Discourses as that of someone who has been invited to a banquet or festival and behaves like a good guest.
Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and is opposite to you. Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency. Suppose that it passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it is not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you. Do so with respect to children, so with respect to a wife, so with respect to magisterial offices, so with respect to wealth, and you will be some time a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods. (Encheiridion, 15)
We should, in other words, be grateful for what life gives us, as if we were receiving a gift or a favour, without becoming over-attached to them, greedily craving things we don’t have or clinging on to those of which we must let go. However, he does goes on to say that Diogenes the Cynic, Heraclitus, and other wise philosophers like them, were regarded as divine because they did not even take as much as they could have and looked down on such externals with an even greater sense of indifference than the Stoics. Perhaps this is an allusion to the Stoic notion that the Cynic way of life, which involved greater renunciation and voluntary hardship, can provide a shortcut to virtue. Epictetus appears to have believed, though, that the austere life of a Cynic is only suitable for certain exceptional individuals. Stoics typically adopted a more moderate way of life which allowed them to participate in ordinary society, to earn a living and attend social events, etc., as long as they don’t place more importance on the externals they value than they do on their own character, or living wisely and in accord with reason and virtue.
Please feel free to download and share these beautiful Socrates HD wallpapers with quotes about his life and philosophy, specially created by our graphic designer, Rocio de Torres.
One of the most common misinterpretations of Stoicism is the notion that Stoics believe all external things are totally indifferent. That’s arguably closer to the philosophy of the Cynics, or possibly of the Skeptics or even the renegade Stoic, Aristo of Chios, as we’ll see. For these philosophers, everything except virtue and vice is classed as indifferent. That includes things like health, wealth, property, reputation, and so on, which philosophers called “externals” because they’re external to the mind, or more specifically external to our volition or faculty of moral choice. As Epictetus put it, only our actions are good or evil, and everything else is indifferent.
However, when Zeno founded the Stoic school he distinguished it from earlier philosophies precisely by asserting that although externals were, in one sense, indifferent, in another sense they were not. For Stoics, external things are not good or bad in the strongest sense. They don’t make our souls better or worse, or affect our fulfilment (eudaimonia) in life. What matters ultimately is the use we make of them, good or bad, virtuous or vicious. However, Zeno said that they do have another sort of value (axia), which allows us to choose between them. Indeed, it’s perfectly natural and rational to prefer some externals over others. We’re quite right to prefer life over death, health over sickness, and friends over enemies, generally speaking, as long as we do so “lightly”, to borrow a phrase from Epictetus. Put simply, we shouldn’t place so much value on these external things that we become upset if we get what we don’t want, or don’t get what we do want. The Stoics talk about “preferring” or “dispreferring” externals, as opposed to strongly desiring them. We choose between them, without becoming attached to them, or strongly averse to them.
More than this, however, Zeno and the Stoics argued that wisdom, and the other virtues, consist precisely in our ability to distinguish rationally between the value of different external things. Ironically, someone who discounts all externals as totally indifferent, or equally indifferent, would therefore be foolish according to the Stoics. They would lack prudence. They’d also lack the ability to exercise justice by knowing what it’s fair and benevolent to give other people or to do for them. They’d also lack the virtues of courage and moderation because they wouldn’t be able to distinguish rationally between things worth enduring or renouncing and things not.
In De Finibus, Cicero portrays a conversation between himself and Cato, representing the “complete Stoic”. He begins by tackling precisely this misconception of Stoicism. After Cato asserts the Stoic principle that virtue (moral worth) is the only true good, Cicero replies:
“What you have said so far, Cato,” I answered, “might equally well be said by a follower of Pyrrho or of Aristo. They, as you are aware, think as you do, that this Moral Worth you speak of is not merely the chief but the only Good […] Do you then,” I asked, “commend these philosophers, and think that we ought to adopt this view of theirs?” “I certainly would not have you adopt their view,” he said; “for it is of the essence of virtue to exercise choice among the things in accordance with nature; so that philosophers who make all things absolutely equal, rendering them indistinguishable either as better or worse, and leaving no room for selection among them, have abolished virtue itself.” (De Finibus)
Notice that he says very clearly that virtue itself is effectively destroyed if we treat all externals as equal. Virtue, in other words, consists precisely in our ability to apply reason by weighing-up the value of different external things. Cato returns to this point later:
“Next follows an exposition of the difference between things; for if we maintained that all things were absolutely indifferent, the whole of life would be thrown into confusion, as it is by Aristo, and no function or task could be found for wisdom, since there would be absolutely no distinction between the things that pertain to the conduct of life, and no choice need be exercised among them. Accordingly after conclusively proving that morality alone is good and baseness alone evil, the Stoics went on to affirm that among those things which were of no importance for happiness or misery, there was nevertheless an element of difference, making some of them of positive and others of negative value, and others neutral. (De Finibus)
For instance, some Cynics believed it was courageous to endure self-immolation, burning themselves alive to protest. The Stoics, however, would say that if the protest is futile then this isn’t courage but rather folly. Marcus Aurelius says that although Stoics believe suicide can be a reasonable decision it’s only appropriate to prefer one’s death to life when based on sound judgement, given certain circumstances such as euthanasia in extreme old age and sickness, or self-sacrifice in warfare for the greater good. By contrast, the Christians, he says, endure death (martyrdom) out of foolish obstinacy and a desire to make a tragic spectacle of themselves (11.3).
We don’t know much about female Stoics, except perhaps some of the daughters of famous Stoics who appear also to have been influenced by Stoics. For example, Porcia Catonis, the daughter of Cato of Utica, is portrayed in a manner that suggests she may have been a Stoic, as is Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition.
One of the daughters of Marcus Aurelius, Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor (160-212 AD), may perhaps also have learned something of Stoicism from her famous father. At least, Cornificia appears to have been more committed to honouring her father’s memory and following his moral example than her younger brother Commodus was, though.
When she was in her fifties the tyrannical emperor Caracalla had her executed, by forced suicide, as part of a purge.
[Caracalla], when about to kill Cornificia, bade her choose the manner of her death, as if he were thereby showing her especial honour. She first uttered many laments, and then, inspired by the memory of her father, Marcus, her grandfather, Antoninus, and her brother, Commodus, she ended by saying: “Poor, unhappy soul of mine, imprisoned in a vile body, fare forth, be freed, show them that you are Marcus’ daughter, whether they will or no.” Then she laid aside all the adornments in which she was arrayed, having composed herself in seemly fashion, severed her veins and died.
Other than that we don’t know much about her. However, if she actually said “show them that you are Marcus’ daughter” as she faced death then it suggests she may perhaps have been inspired by his Stoicism.