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.

Announcing Stoicon-x Toronto 2017

Information and schedule of speakers for Stoicon-x Toronto 2017, the conference on modern Stoicism, Sunday October 15th. The day following the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto.


Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our [tips and guidelines] for putting on your own events.

Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after Stoicon 2017. You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to this. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!

Book tickets online now.

Full Schedule

9.30am – 10am Registration and coffee

10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism

10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.45am Morning break (15 min.)

11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism

12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)

12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship

12.45pm Closing Donald Robertson (15 min.)

1pm – 1.30pm Networking

NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.

The main conference venue for Stoicon is the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale hotel, who will provide accommodation at a discounted rate if you’re attending Stoicon 2017. We cannot guarantee that rooms for all delegates will be available at the Holiday Inn. However, there are several other hotels nearby where you can stay.

What were previous Stoicon conferences like?

You can watch this YouTube video about one of our previous conferences, and some of the previous talks are available online.

The Threefold Nature of Stoic Ethics

Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato.  They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source.  However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy.  (See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.)  For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine.  Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order.  All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though.  Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical.  My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.

  1. Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
  2. Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
  3. Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.

The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine.  By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom.  Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics.  I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by “living in agreement with Nature”.  Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world.  His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.

Living in Agreement with Nature

The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was “the life in agreement with nature” (to homologoumenos te phusei zen).  Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man.  It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou).  The composite Greek word translated “agreement” literally means same-saying, or same-thinking.  To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts.  For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions.  We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.

The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws.  It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining.  Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue.  We’re told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.  In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we’re part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.

They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity.  Diogenes writes: “By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.”  This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.

Consistency and Elenchus

According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.”  And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences.  Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.  The good is defined as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions.  They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues.  However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of consistency.  Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.

The Stoics admired the Socratic method of elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions of the another person by penetrating questioning.  The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions.  The connotation of the phrase “living in agreement”, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or consistently.  It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles.  Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus.  In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role.   Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly.  However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life.  When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.

The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature.  The Sage is the same in every eventuality.  His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent.  His thoughts don’t “flutter” between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion.  The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines.  He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts.  We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.

Oikeiôsis and Natural Affection

This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics.  It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”.  It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household.  Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”.  However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification.  Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation.  According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see.  As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.

The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (philostorgia).  The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates.  Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture.  The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social.  (So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.)  The bull identifies with, and has “familial affection”, for the rest of his herd.  He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his “household”.  (Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.)  Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.

For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin.  The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters.  The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles.  We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity.  He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household.  He even suggests we call friends “brother” or “sister” and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship.  Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers “brother”.  When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage.  Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self.  On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice.  Even toward one’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection.  As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another.  Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions.  Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.

However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis functions at two levels: self and social.  The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology.  The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning.  At birth, we’re driven by our self-preservation instincts.  Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body.  If you were to ask someone whether they’d rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie.  The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikeiôsis that operates within the individual.  On the other hand, we’re to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue.  As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine.  We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.

When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikeiôsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings.  For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness.  For the Stoics, this means also that we’re akin to the gods, with whom we share reason.  It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language.  Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.

Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world.  That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature.  In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate.  Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining.  Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals.  If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re averse.  To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.

The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure

As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues.  It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:

Virtues Relationships Topics Disciplines
Wisdom Self Logic Assent
Justice Others Ethics Action
Courage and
World Physics Fear and

Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema.  However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions.  Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.

Theristius on Roman Stoics

Excerpt on Stoicism from the Orations of Themistius.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

There’s a little-known passage about Stoics and other philosophers in Roman political history in the 34th Oration of Themistius, from the 4th century AD, entitled In Reply to Those who Found Fault with him for Accepting Public Office:

The emperor [Theodosius] has shown those who are now alive something they no longer expected to see: philosophy passing judgment in union with the highest power, philosophy broadcasting inspired and action-oriented precepts that up to now she has merely been proposing in her writings. Future generations will sing the praises of Theodosius for his summoning of philosophy to the public sphere, just as they will praise Hadrian, Marcus [Aurelius], and Antoninus [Pius], who are his ancestors, his fellow citizens, founders of his line. Theodosius was not content merely to inherit the purple from them; he also brought them back into the palace as exemplars after a long lapse of time and set philosophy by his side, just as they had done.

Neither the Persian Cyrus nor Alexander the Great could reach this level of distinction. Alexander deemed his guide Aristotle worthy of many great honors and peopled Stagira for him, but he did not give the philosopher a role in the exercise of that massive power of his. Neither did Augustus give Arius such a role, nor Scipio Panaetius, nor Tiberius Thrasyllus. In these individuals the three statesmen had only observers of their private struggles: even though they might have greatly desired to drag them into the stadium’s dust, they were unable to do so. But this was not the experience of our current emperor’s fathers and the founders of his line [Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius], whose names are great. They pulled Arrian and [Junius] Rusticus away from their books, refusing to let them be mere pen-and-ink philosophers. They did not let them write about courage and stay at home, or compose legal treatises while avoiding the public domain that is law’s concern, or decide what form of government is best while abstaining from any participation in government. The emperors to whom I am now alluding consequently escorted these men to the general’s tent as well as to the speaker’s platform. In their role as Roman generals, these men passed through the Caspian Gates, drove the Alani out of Armenia, and established boundaries for the Iberians and the Albani. For all these accomplishments, they reaped the fruits of the eponymous consulship, governed the great city [of Rome], and presided over the ancient senate. For the emperors [who thus employed them] knew that it is proper that public office, like the body, be cleansed, and that the greater and more noble the office is, the more cleansing it needs. These emperors understood that opinion was held by the ancient Romans, who saw the learned Cato hold the quaestorship, Brutus the praetorship, Favonius the plebeian tribunate, Varro the office with six axes and Rutilius the consulship. I pass over Priscus, Thrasea, and others of the same sort; writers will sate you with them if you should choose to consult their accounts. Nor was Marcus [Aurelius] himself anything but a philosopher in the purple. The same can be said for Hadrian, Antoninus [Pius], and, of course, for our current ruler Theodosius.

If you should look at his belt and cloak, you will number him with the vast majority of emperors; but if you cast your eyes on his soul and his intellect, you will class him with that famous triad [of philosophical emperors]. For surely he should be placed among those who are similarly minded, not among those who are similarly garbed.

Stoic Ethics: Specific Examples

Summary of specific Stoic moral precepts from Diogenes Laertius, with commentary.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Stoic Ethics is often articulated in abstract terms as being based around the doctrine that virtue is the only true good.  Indeed, some Stoics, such as Aristo, believed that grasping the true nature of the good was all that really mattered because individuals could then infer their own moral precepts from that insight.

However, in his summary of early Stoic philosophy, Diogenes Laertius does provide the following list of Stoic precepts that offer more specific guidance.  In some cases, the context is obscure or there are puzzles over translation but this is what he says, with some minor editing for readability:

  1. “Now they say that the wise man is passionless [has apatheia], because he is not prone to fall into [passions]. But they add that in another sense the term apatheia is applied to the wretched man, when, that is, it means that he is hard and unrelenting.”  Note: That this means we would have to be cautious in talking as if apatheia is the goal of life.  These first three comments refer to three key qualities of the wise man having to be carefully distinguished from similar qualities in the bad man, viz., his aloofness from passions, the opinion of others, and pleasures.
  2. “Further, the wise man is said to be free from arrogance for he is indifferent to the good or bad opinions [of others].  However, he is not alone in this, there being another who is also free from arrogance, he who is ranged among the rash, and that is the wretched man.”  Note: Stoics would therefore also have to be cautious in viewing their goal as indifference to opinions of others because that could as easily lead them into folly and vice.
  3. “Again, they tell us that all good men are austere or harsh [i.e., strict], because they neither have dealings with pleasure themselves nor tolerate those who have.  The term harsh is applied, however, to others as well, and in much the same sense as a wine is said to be harsh when it is employed medicinally [bitter medicine] and not for drinking at all.”  Note: Stoics are not harsh like bitter medicine but they are wary of pleasure-seeking.
  4. “Again, the good are genuinely in earnest and vigilant for their own improvement, using a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear.”  Note: Zeno says that we should focus on what we can learn about virtue from others.
  5. “At the same time they are free from pretence; for they have stripped off all pretence or ‘make-up’ whether in voice or in look.”  Note: Marcus particularly emphasises the value of honesty and plain-speaking, but this can be traced back to the Cynics.
  6. “Free too are they from all business cares, declining to do anything which conflicts with duty.”  Note: They may make money, but are not entangled in business obligations that divert them from philosophy or virtue.
  7. “They will take wine, but not get drunk. Nay more, they will not be liable to madness either; not but there will at times occur to the good man strange impressions due to melancholy or delirium, ideas not determined by the principle of what is choiceworthy [i.e., healthy] but contrary to nature.”  Note: Even the wise man may suffer from clinical depression or delirium.
  8. “Nor indeed will the wise man ever feel emotional suffering; seeing that such suffering is irrational contraction of the soul, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics.”  Note: That is not to say that he will not experience emotional reactions that impinge on his mind from impressions.
  9. “They are also, it is declared, godlike; for they have a something divine within them; whereas the bad man is godless. And yet of this word godless or ungodly- there are two senses, one in which it is the opposite of the term ‘godly,’ the other denoting the man who ignores the divine altogether: in this latter sense, as they note, the term does not apply to every bad man.” Note: The good man is divine himself, whereas the bad man is not.  Although some bad men are religious, and worship the gods, they are nevertheless all alienated from the divine.
  10. “The good, it is added, are also worshippers of God for they have acquaintance with the rites of the gods, and piety is the knowledge of how to serve the gods. Further, they will sacrifice to the gods and they keep themselves pure; for they avoid all acts that are offences against the gods, and the gods think highly of them: for they are holy and just in what concerns the gods. The wise too are the only priests; for they have made sacrifices their study, as also the building of temples, purifications, and all the other matters appertaining to the gods.”  Note: Only the wise can truly be pious, in other words, and they are the only true priests of Zeus.  However, Stoics will typically observe the outward rituals of their society’s established religion.
  11. “The Stoics approve also of honouring parents and brothers in the second place next after the gods.”  Note: This resembles The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, quoted by both Seneca and Epictetus.
  12. “They further maintain that parental affection for children is natural to the good, but not to the bad.” Note: Natural affection is the basis of Stoic Ethics, and part of our instinctive animal nature, but in the foolish and vicious it is presumably corrupted.  Obviously, some parents do not love their children, though, and the Stoics want to say this is unnatural.
  13. “It is one of their tenets that sins are all equal: so Chrysippus in the fourth book of his Ethical Questions, as well as Persaeus and Zeno. For if one truth is not more true than another, neither is one falsehood more false than another, and in the same way one deceit is not more so than another, nor sin than sin. For he who is a hundred furlongs from Canopus and he who is only one furlong away are equally not in Canopus, and so too he who commits the greater sin and he who commits the less are equally not in the path of right conduct. But Heraclides of Tarsus, who was the disciple of Antipater of Tarsus, and Athenodorus both assert that sins are not equal.”  Note: This doctrine is well-known from other sources.  However, here we’re told Stoics were able to reject it, beginning with the scholarch Antipater.  It’s notable that it’s here linked with the bivalent theory of truth.
  14. “Again, the Stoics say that the wise man will take part in politics, if nothing hinders him -so, for instance, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Various Types of Life– since thus he will restrain vice and promote virtue.” Note: The Stoic will engage in public life, Fate permitting, as he has a duty to restrain vice and promote virtue in his society.  This was a well-known contrast with Epicureanism, which advised a life of relative seclusion.  Zeno himself was a moral, and perhaps political, advisor to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia; he later sent two of his best students to advise him at court.
  15. “Also, they maintain, he will marry, as Zeno says in his Republic, and beget children.” Note: Again, this contrasts with Epicurus who reputedly said his students should typically avoid marrying and having children.  Epicetus’ students also allude to this obligation and gently make fun of him for failing to marry himself.  Though he never married, he reputedly later adopted a child.
  16. “Moreover, they say that the wise man will never form mere opinions, that is to say, he will never give assent to anything that is false…”  Note: This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.  He will however give assent to self-evident impressions, particularly the firmly-grasped nature of the good.
  17. “He will also play the Cynic, Cynicism being a short cut to virtue, as Apollodorus calls it in his Ethics.”  Note: Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus seem particularly influenced by this reading of Stoicism but Seneca, by contrast, does not often mention Cynicism.  By “playing the Cynic” he probably means sincerely adopting the Cynic lifestyle, while accepting Stoic doctrines.
  18. “He will even turn cannibal under stress of circumstances.”  Note: This was used as a criticism of Stoicism.  However, in this passage it seems clear that they’re talking about turning to cannibalism being acceptable under extreme circumstances.  It’s probably also related to the Stoic interpretation of Greek tragedy, in this case Thyestes who was tricked into eating his children.  Presumably Chrysippus said this act was not morally evil because it was unintentional on his part and that the “tragedy” is always due to the protagonist’s value judgments.
  19. “They declare that he 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.”  Note: This passage appears to distinguish between i) inner slavery (to passions), ii) being subordinated by another, iii) being owned as a slave and subordinated by a master.  Remarkably, we’re told slave-ownership is morally bad, which appears to be a criticism of the institution of slavery.
  20. “Moreover, according to them not only are the wise free, they are also kings; kingship being rule unaccountable to others, which none but the wise can maintain: so Chrysippus in his treatise vindicating Zeno’s use of terminology. For he holds that knowledge of good and evil is a necessary attribute of the ruler, and that no bad man is acquainted with this science.”  Note: As the Cynics said earlier, only the morally wise man truly has the mind of a king.
  21. “Similarly the wise and good alone are fit to be magistrates, judges, or orators, whereas among the bad there is not one so qualified.”  Note: This naturally follows, but what implications does it have for Stoic attitudes toward legal institutions?
  22. “Furthermore, the wise are infallible, not being liable to error.  They are also blameless; for they do no harm to others or to themselves.”  Note: Although, no perfectly wise person actually exists – this is an ideal.
  23. “At the same time they are not pitying and make no allowance for anyone; they never relax the penalties fixed by the laws, since indulgence and pity and even equitable consideration are marks of a weak mind, which affects kindness in place of chastizing. Nor do they deem punishments too severe.” Note: The Stoics are supposed to be kind and fair but not pitying, because if the laws (derived from nature and reason) are applied fairly then there should be no need to be more lenient or bend the rules for individuals.
  24. “Again, they say that the wise man never wonders at any of the things which appear extraordinary, such as Charon’s mephitic [noxious] caverns, ebbings of the tide, hot springs or fiery eruptions.” Note: The wise man is not incredulous at unusual natural phenomena.
  25. “Nor yet, they go on to say, will the wise man live in solitude; for he is naturally made for society and action.” Note: He will not live in seclusion, like Epicurus in his Garden, and withdraw from public life.
  26. “He will, however, submit to training to augment his powers of bodily endurance.”  Note: We have many examples of this from Cynicism, such as hugging bronze statues, naked, in winter, to become used to intense cold, but also the Stoics recommend moderate exercise, perhaps walking briskly or running, which Cynics traditionally did barefoot.  Seneca mentions other forms of physical exercise such as athletic jumping and lifting weights.
  27. “And the wise man, they say, will offer prayers, and ask for good things from the gods: so Posidonius in the first book of his treatise On Duties, and Hecato in his third book On Paradoxes.”  Note: However, Epictetus says that the good things we should prayer for help with are our own virtues rather than external “goods”.
  28. “Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves. They argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends. But among the bad there is, they hold, no such thing as friendship, and thus no bad man has a friend.”  Note: This is another well-known doctrine, derived from Zeno’s Republic.  Here friendship seems to imply common use and possibly ownership of external “goods”, i.e., possibly communal property.  Zeno, like Aristotle, said a friend is another self (alter ego).  Friends are worth having for their own sake, not because they help us achieve peace of mind, pace Epicureanism.
  29. “Another of their tenets is that the unwise are all mad, inasmuch as they are not wise but do what they do from that madness which is the equivalent of their folly.”  Note: Another well-known Stoic doctrine, but as the wise man is exceedingly rare, that surely means everyone, even the founders of Stoicism, is technically classed as mad.
  30. “Furthermore, the wise man does all things well, just as we say that Ismenias [a famous Theban flautist] plays all airs on the flute well.”  Note: This surely can’t mean that the wise man has every practical skill but that he does all things morally well.
  31. “Also everything belongs to the wise. For the law, they say, has conferred upon them a perfect right to all things. It is true that certain things are said to belong to the bad, just as what has been dishonestly acquired may be said, in one sense, to belong to the state, in another sense to those who are enjoying it.”  Note: Again, this perhaps suggests a sense in which all property would be communal in the ideal Stoic Republic.
  32. It is a tenet of theirs that between virtue and vice there is nothing intermediate, whereas according to the Peripatetics there is, namely, the state of moral improvement. For, say the Stoics, just as a stick must be either straight or crooked, so a man must be either just or unjust. Nor again are there degrees of justice and injustice, and the same rule applies to the other virtues. Note: See above.  This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.
  33. Further, while Chrysippus holds that virtue can be lost, Cleanthes maintains that it cannot. According to the former it may be lost in consequence of drunkenness or melancholy; the latter takes it to be inalienable owing to the certainty of our mental apprehension.  Note: This seems to be a trivial disagreement.  Presumably, Cleanthes meant that knowledge of important matters cannot be lost under normal conditions, unless our thinking is impaired – and Stoic virtue is a form of knowledge.
  34. And virtue in itself they hold to be worthy of choice for its own sake. At all events we are ashamed of bad conduct as if we knew that nothing is really good but the morally beautiful. Note: Virtue is its own reward, in other words.  This is a central doctrine of Stoicism.  We are typically ashamed of bad conduct regardless of its consequences, which implies that it is bad in itself, and by contrast, that the good is good in itself.
  35. Moreover, they hold that it is in itself sufficient to ensure well-being: thus Zeno, and Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Virtues, and Hecato in the second book of his treatise On Goods: “For if magnanimity by itself alone can raise us far above everything, and if magnanimity is but a part of virtue, then too virtue as a whole will be sufficient in itself for well-being -despising all things that seem troublesome.” Panaetius, however, and Posidonius deny that virtue is self-sufficing: on the contrary, health is necessary, and some means of living and strength.  Note: This suggests that Panaetius and Posidonius shifted closer to the Platonist or Aristotelian position.
  36. Another tenet of theirs is the perpetual exercise of virtue, as held by Cleanthes and his followers. For virtue can never be lost, and the good man is always exercising his mind, which is perfect.
  37. Again, they say that justice, as well as law and right reason, exists by nature and not by convention: so Chrysippus in his work On the Morally Beautiful.  Note: This is in contrast to the Epicureans, who held that justice is a social contract or convention.
  38. Neither do they think that the divergence of opinion between philosophers is any reason for abandoning the study of philosophy, since at that rate we should have to give up life altogether: so Posidonius in his Exhortations.  Note: This is obviously in contrast to the Skeptics who held that contradictory opinions between philosophers is evidence of the impossibility of arriving at a firm conclusion.
  39. Chrysippus allows that the ordinary Greek education is serviceable.  Note: This is notable because Zeno apparently denounced the ordinary Greek education, in rhetoric as opposed to philosophy, in the Republic, although that caused some controversy.
  40. It is their doctrine that there can be no question of right as between man and the lower animals, because of their unlikeness. Thus Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Justice, and Posidonius in the first book of his De officio.  Note: Human rights are intrinsically more important than animal rights, presumably because we possess language and reason.
  41. Further, they say that the wise man will feel affection for the youths who by their countenance show a natural endowment for virtue. So Zeno in his Republic, Chrysippus in book i. of his work On Modes of Life, and Apollodorus in his Ethics.  Note: The Stoics thought virtue showed itself in a person’s facial expression, movement and gestures, etc.  True beauty is the inner beauty of virtue, which nevertheless we know through a person’s behaviour.
  42. Their definition of love is an effort toward friendliness due to visible beauty appearing, its sole end being friendship, not bodily enjoyment. At all events, they allege that Thrasonides, although he had his mistress in his power, abstained from her because she hated him. By which it is shown, they think, that love depends upon regard, as Chrysippus says in his treatise Of Love, and is not sent by the gods. And beauty they describe as the bloom or flower of virtue.  Note: Some commentators take Thrasonides to be an otherwise unknown Stoic philosopher.  Love is a judgement, like other passions in Stoicism, and not a form of divine madness or an irrational impulse.  It’s the desire to be loved, reciprocally, by someone whom we judge to be good (equivalent to friendship), and whose physical appearance we find attractive, although physical pleasure is not its true aim.
  43. Of the three kinds of life, the contemplative, the practical, and the rational, they declare that we ought to choose the last, for that a rational being is expressly produced by nature for contemplation and for action.  Note: This appears similar to the division between contemplation and action used by Aristotle, although here the conclusion is decidedly in favour of using reason to live for both contemplation and action.
  44. They tell us that the wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life, on his country’s behalf or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease.  Note: Stoic euthanasia.  A foolish man, which is the majority, though, is not justified in taking his own life, especially if driven by a passion like clinical depression.
  45. It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government [and not only they, but also Diogenes the Cynic and Plato]. Under such circumstances we shall feel paternal affection for all the children alike, and there will be an end of the jealousies arising from adultery.  Note: It’s known Zeno said this in the Republic.  Presumably he meant that both husbands and wives are shared in common.  The Stoic ideal of oikeiosis, means bringing others into our family or household.  Hierocles described ways of helping us imagine this by referring to cousins as “brother” or “sister” and picturing concentric circles representing our relationships, bringing them gradually closer to the centre of our concern.  However, in Zeno’s Republic it sounds like everyone is actually part of the same household and family in a more literal sense, and this helps to illustrate the Stoic moral ideal.
  46. The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy (or the rule of the best).  Note: Presumably this was not the utopian government of Zeno’s Republic, as it is populated by wise men, but rather a prescription for real-world government, among the imperfectly wise.

“Such, then, are the statements they make in their ethical doctrines, with much more besides, together with their proper proofs: let this, however, suffice for a statement of them in a summary and elementary form.”