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Book Review: Backbone by Karen Duffy

Karen DuffyKaren Duffy, or “Duff”, was kind enough to send me a review copy of her new book Backbone: Living With Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One (2017) because it contains a chapter on Stoicism. It’s a book about developing a backbone, and a sense of humour, and not allowing chronic pain or illness to get you down.

I wish I could write like Duff. Her style is witty banter and yet there’s a profound message of hope in there as well as the wisdom of experience. I postponed reading Backbone for about eight months because I was “too busy”. When I finally got round to it, I read it in a single evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. (I’ve already sneaked the PDF to some of my friends!) Duff has an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. It’s not very nice.  She’s had to learn to cope with a lot of health issues, as well as severe chronic pain. She talks about how it was as though “old age” hit her in her early thirties in the form of chronic illness. She’s tough, though, and full of gratitude for life. Duff’s pretty into Stoicism already, and maybe I’m biased, but I reckon she could be even more Stoic than she realizes.

Her basic attitude that “happiness is a byproduct of being useful”, that it comes from what we give rather than what we get, is pure Stoicism. It’s our own actions that lead to personal fulfilment not just the chance events that happen to befall us in life. She’s of the “you make your own luck” school of thought, which is totally derived from Stoicism as well. “What is bad fortune? Opinion.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.3). Duff says that it seems to her that things turn out for the best when we try to make the best of our situation. Epictetus calls this philosophy of life the magic wand of Hermes.  According to legend, it has the power to turn anything it touches into gold. What he means is that if we have the right attitude we can flourish even in adversity, by showing our resilience, and turning bad fortune into good. “I believe”, says Duff, “that when we face obstacles and adversity in our lives we have an opportunity to strengthen our courage.” She’s clearly talking from experience so I think we should listen…

One of the many unexpected things I learned from this book is that hockey may be the most Stoic game. Apparently there’s an “embellishment penalty” for players who take a dive and fake injuries on the ice. If there’s one thing the Stoics like to tell us it’s that we only make things worse by complaining too much about our suffering. It just adds another layer to our misery. As Paul Dubois, a famous Stoic-influenced psychotherapist everyone’s now forgotten about, liked to say: “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” (Obscure therapy reference #1.) That could pretty much be Duff’s slogan as well. She describes her illness as, in some ways, a gift. Not a gift she’d have picked out for herself but she’s found an upside in discovering her own backbone, or inner resilience. Her advice that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional is (you guessed it) also pure Stoic.

When I read Duff’s remark “I believe that we are never too sick or too old to set another goal”, for some reason it reminded me of one of my favourite passages from ancient philosophy, found at the very start of Plato’s Republic. It’s a conversation between Socrates and a venerable old man, a wealthy immigrant living in Athens, called Cephalus. I first read it as a teenager and it just stuck in my mind. Socrates says that as life is a journey, he thinks it’s only sensible to ask those who have gone before us what the territory ahead is like: is it rough or smooth going? Cephalus gives him a surprising answer. First he explains that just as birds of a feather flock together so, he finds, old men like each other’s company. He hears all his friends complaining about old age, and their various aches and pains on a regular basis, and if you listened to them you’d think it’s a terrible curse. But Cephalus says they’re all wrong.

He says that what matters is your attitude and that if you’re the sort of person who complains about old age then he reckons you probably complained almost as much in your youth when the going was easier anyway. He looks on the positive side of things. As he gets older he’s lost his sex drive but that’s okay because it’s one less thing to worry about. He quotes Sophocles’ saying that it’s like being unshackled from a madman. In fact, Cephalus says that as he’s grown older he feels like he’s been gradually unshackled from several madmen. He looks at young people and feels that they spend a lot of time and energy chasing after things that just don’t matter to him anymore and worrying about superficial concerns that one day they’ll forget about. He can’t travel much anymore because he’s frail but he finds that he obtains more pleasure from conversation than he ever did in the past.

This is all prelude to the Stoics. Epictetus said “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them” and not a lot of people know this but he immediately follows it by saying that death can’t be terrible because if it were everyone would be scared of it whereas Socrates viewed it with noble indifference. Epictetus probably learned this strategy from reading about Socrates. Does something upset you? (Yes!) Does everyone else feel upset about it or do some people view it differently and cope better? (I guess so.) Well, in that case, could it be that it’s not the thing itself that’s upsetting but your way of looking at it?

In the conversation in the Republic the roles are reversed for some reason and it’s Socrates who’s learning this from Cephalus. What’s nice about this discussion is that he’s not entirely convinced, though. You see Cephalus owned a huge factory producing weapons and armour and so he was a wealthy businessman. Come now, says Socrates, surely people will think that’s easy for you to say because you’ve got loads of cash. Cephalus is very relaxed. He replies with a story. The Athenian general Themistocles, who had accomplished great things and won tremendous acclaim, once met a rude man from the relatively small and undistinguished Greek Island of Seriphos, who wanted to take him down a peg or two. The Seraphean remarked rather cynically that Themistocles was only famous because he had the good fortune to be born in Athens (the big smoke) and so he had a head start in life. “True,” replied Themistocles, “but if I had been born in Seriphos and you in Athens, neither of us would have achieved anything.” Touche! Cephalus brought up this anecdote to make the analogous point that wealth, though an advantage, only goes so far in making life more comfortable. At the end of the day, you need the right attitude as well. He’s already implied the same thing earlier when talking about the advantages of youth and good health. Someone with a negative attitude often won’t be happy even with all the advantages money, youth, and health bring. Cephalus admits that poverty, old age, and sickness are obviously disadvantages. However, even when faced with these challenges, a truly wise man, with the right attitude toward life, can perhaps flourish in his own way and find a degree of happiness. As I was reading Backbone, it occured to me that Duff might like that story too.  (So that’s my feeble excuse for a massive digression!)

Anyway, how did she actually get into Stoicism in the first place? Well, one of her friends pointed out a bust of Marcus Aurelius to her in the garden of Sylvester Manor, an 18th century house on Shelter Island, in New York. Not to be outdone, Duff decided she better find out who this guy was and brushed up on her knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, including Stoic philosophy. Now she carries a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in her purse and reads from it every day. As she puts it, it was actually her competitiveness and a kind of intellectual envy that inspired her to get into Stoicism. As she learned more about Stoicism, though, she realized that, ironically, it’s a philosophy that teaches us to value improvements in our own character (virtue) and indifference toward these sort of comparisons with other people (externals).  She plunged into Stoicism in any case because it was obviously very relevant to the challenges she was facing in life.

She went from reading Marcus to Epictetus whose endurance of chronic pain and disability she admired. Epictetus was lame and according to one account this was because, as a slave, his master cruelly snapped his leg. It’s surprising how many people find Epictetus relatable because of his gammy leg – it may explain why he comes over a bit cranky sometimes. Duff took from him the doctrine that none of us are free unless we master ourselves. She’d already taken up the challenge of mastering herself, particularly how she coped with pain and illness. Stoicism added some validation perhaps and she says it gave her a way to rise above the suffering of her body while focusing instead on the care of her soul.

Duff says she was very receptive to the core idea of Stoic philosophy, which she correctly sees as being that happiness, or fulfilment, comes largely from within, from our own way of thinking. Epictetus actually attributes this maxim to none other than Zeus himself: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.”  Duff rightly views Stoicism as a practical philosophy emphasizing discipline and duty, something which complements her own values. She says, “The Stoics inspired me to meet the everyday challenges of my life and showed me how to deal with inevitable losses, disappointments, and grief… I find Stoicism a great resource that fills me with resilience and vigour.” Chronic pain can become a teacher and she learned that trying to control her pain, when she couldn’t, sometimes just backfired by making it more intense. A certain type of acceptance can be a pathway to emotional resilience in coping with chronic pain and illness, as the Stoics taught. She therefore follows Marcus Aurelius’ advice to reject any sense of injury to herself, despite the physical limitations imposed by her illness. There are a whole repertoire of pain management techniques tucked away in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from special ways of accepting the sensation to learning to forego unnecessary complaining, which the Stoics believed often only made things worse. One of the most fundamental things Stoicism teaches, though, is a particular way of looking at pain as being neither good nor bad but “indifferent”, which can help us accept that it’s there and get on with our lives. When we’re able to stop hating our pain and struggling with it internally, we often suffer less, which is a kind of paradox really.

Today we talk about grasping a nettle – if you do it confidently, without hesitating, you’re less likely to get stung. The Cynic philosophers, who were the forerunners of the Stoics, had a whole barrage of similar metaphors for accepting pain and hardship. They talk about our pain being like a pack of wild dogs threatening us. If we panic and try to run they’ll just chase us down and we’ll literally end up a dog’s breakfast – that’s just what they’re waiting for us to do. The wise man turns to face them, looking at them calmly and confidently, which hopefully causes them to back away. (At least according to the Cynics!) They also compare it to grabbing a snake. The nervous person who tries to pick it up by the tip of its tail or the middle will get himself bitten. An ancient snake handler would go straight for the scary end, grabbing it confidently behind its head to avoid being bitten. Their point is that if we voluntarily face our pain, and accept it, we’ll often suffer less than if we try to struggle or avoid it. Someone who tries to stamp out a fire gingerly is more likely to get burned, they say, than someone who just tramples on it confidently. And then they’ve got another one about a timid boxer who backs away and ends up getting more of a beating than if he’d moved toward his opponent, and had the confidence to fight more aggressively. Therapists today often say that coping with pain is like standing up to a bully. We have to stop running away and trying to hide from him, although that might seem scary at first. We might get hurt, it might be painful at first, but in the long-run we’ll often suffer less by standing our ground and facing what’s threatening us, actively accepting the reality of things like pain and illness.  That seems to be what Duff is saying in Backbone as well.

She also says that her appreciation of Stoicism led her to develop a “pantheon of heroes”, individuals whose resilience in the face of adversity she’s inspired by and who have become her role models in life. She says they’re carved into her own personal Mount Rushmore. They include Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tap dancer from the 1920s.  Studying role-models who exemplify strength of character and resilience is a major technique in (wait for it) Stoic philosophy as well.

She emphasizes the importance of friendship which is not only good psychology, for building resilience, but it’s also a major theme in Greek philosophy. Socrates loved nothing more than bragging about his skill as a matchmaker of friends and he was adept at reconciling friends and family members who’d fallen out after a quarrel. He said some really cool things about friendship. The son of one of his wealthy companions was worried about making friends and he knew that Socrates had loads of friends from all walks of life so I think he was sneakily trying to get himself introduced to some of them. Socrates, in his usual style, gets a dialogue going about what qualities we should look for in our ideal friends. Seems pretty banal at first. But in typical Socrates-style he’s got a hidden agenda, and he plans to turn the whole conversation on its head. He explains that he’d be delighted to introduce the lad to all the best people in Athens and he knows the secret – he’ll just heap praise on him in their presence. There’s a catch, though, Socrates wants him to promise he’ll actually do all the things he’s just described the ideal friend doing because then he won’t be lying when praising him as someone who would make a great friend. That makes the boy hesitate. Socrates says there are only two parts to this process. Introducing him around Athens is the easy part and anyone should be delighted to do that once they see he’s such a great guy. That’s the only part the boy’s worried about but he needn’t be. The real problem is actually making himself a good friend to begin with, the sort anyone would want to have, and he admits that’s something he’s not really thought about enough. So he goes off to work on himself a bit more. Like most people facing most problems, he’d kind of got the whole thing back to front.  Socrates is also trying to get him to realize that his goal shouldn’t just be appearing like a good friend but actually being one.

Duff quotes Aristotle’s saying “A friend is a second self”, literally an alter ego. (Alter ego est amicus.)  That saying was also attributed to Zeno, the founder of Stoicism – maybe something the Stoics and Aristotle agreed on. Many of the other quotes and sayings are consistent with Stoicism even if that’s not where they came from. Duff quotes C.S. Lewis saying “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” That’s Stoicism central. Epictetus said we should avoid becoming overly-attached to external things and let nothing cleave to us or grow on us that might cause us emotional pain when it is torn away (Discourses, 4.1). That doesn’t mean that Stoics don’t love just that they’re prepared in advance to endure the losses inevitable in life. Duff also talks about how people say things like “I’m not good at this. I’m so upset about your illness, I can’t handle it.” That jumped out at me incidentally because there’s a Discourse of Epictetus where he grills some poor guy who’s been talking just like that about his sick daughter. Epictetus shows him how absurd this is. I’ve been wondering how many people actually say things like that but it sounds like Duff’s met a few so they do exist.

As you can tell, Duff’s a connoisseur of fine quotes. I’ve never heard this one from Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” That really resonated with me, though. Duff’s learned not to be cowed by suffering and her book reminded me of Vespasian’s saying that an emperor should die standing, i.e., never give in. (“Die with your boots on”, I think, is the American version.) She’s also a bit of an etymology geek, noting that the word “disaster” comes from Greek, via Latin, and originally meant “bad star”, or as Shakespeare would say “ill-starred”. It’s a stroke of bad luck. Well I’ll see her “disaster” and raise her one “tragedy”, which comes from the Greek meaning “goat song”. We’re not sure if it was originally a song about a goat with a particularly tragic life or if the highly-contested prize for the most tragic song at Greek festivals was originally a splendid goat. Anyway, when wallowing in tragedy, I find it helps to remember this fact because it’s puzzling enough to serve as a convenient distraction.

Duff says that what matters isn’t that you live, or survive another day, but rather it’s how you live. The Stoics would say that the goal isn’t just to live but to live well, i.e., wisely.  I think her book will probably help a lot of people who are suffering to live through it a bit more wisely. Her voice really comes through loud and clear. It’s easy to write books that everyone sort of likes because they’re bland and inoffensive. This book’s a lot more in your face, and that’s a good thing. It reminded me a little bit of Andrew Salter, the guy who invented assertiveness training. (Obscure therapy reference #2.) Duff concludes the whole thing by saying: “I have a serious illness, but I don’t have to take it seriously. I have found an upside in having my life turned upside down. I have learned acceptance and resilience and have created a whole new life. In short, I grew a backbone.”

Complete List of my Free Stoicism Courses and Downloads

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Roundup of Videos on Stoicism

I’ve been doing quite a few video interviews about Stoicism over the past year or so. Here’s a roundup of some of them.

Stoic TelevisionI’ve been doing quite a few video interviews and webinars about Stoicism over the past year or so. Here’s a roundup of some of them.

  1. Short webinar on Socrates, Stoicism and Cognitive Therapy.
  2. My Introduction to Stoicism talk from the Stoicon 2017 conference on Modern Stoicism in Toronto.
  3. My talk on Stoicism, Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy from the Stoicon 2016 conference on Modern Stoicism in New York.
  4. Interview about Stoicism in the modern world with Philip Ghezelbash.
  5. My workshop on Stoicism and Love from the Stoicon 2015 conference in London.
  6. The original pilot webinar for the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course.
  7. Interview on Stoicism and Online Communities with Justin Vacula.
  8. Round table discussion about applying Stoicism at work, in prisons, in the military, and online from Stoicon 2014 in London.
  9. Video review of Little Stoics Children’s Books with my daughter, Poppy.
  10. Review of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) by Brian Johnson.
  11. Interview for Meet the Modern Stoics with Scott Perry.
  12. Interview on Stoicism, Anxiety, and OCD for The OCD Stories.
  13. The Stoic Handbook of Epictetus, video slideshow.
  14. Review of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) by Frode Osen.
  15. Introduction to Stoic Exercises Webinar
  16. Unboxing Ryan Holiday’s Memento Mori coin
  17. Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories
  18. Marcus Aurelius: Stoicism and Anger
  19. The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius: Practical Tips
  20. What is Modern Stoicism?
  21. Video book review of Diogenes by M.D. Usher with my daughter, Poppy.

 

Book Review: How to be a Stoic (2017) by Massimo Pigliucci

How to be a StoicNB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.

Massimo Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book.

The main part is divided into three sections.  These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.  Pigliucci concludes by describing a list of a dozen Stoic exercises:

  1. Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
  2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
  3. The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
  4. How can I use virtue here and now?
  5. Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
  6. Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
  7. Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
  8. Choose your company well.
  9. Respond to insults with humour.
  10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.
  11. Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
  12. Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.

I would suggest some people might actually benefit from reading these first.

The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.

The Stoics on Phocion the Good

Phocion the GoodPhocion the Good was an Athenian statesman and general who was born a few years before Socrates was executed.  He was executed at Athens himself around 318 BC, perhaps shortly after the arrival there of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.  Plutarch wrote a chapter on him in Parallel Lives, citing him as a Greek counterpart to the famous Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica.  Plutarch mentions Zeno of Citium in relation to the laconic style of speaking that Phocion shared with Cato:

For, as Zeno used to say that a philosopher should immerse his words in meaning before he utters them, so Phocion’s language had most meaning in fewest words.

He also says that Phocion was a “pupil of Plato when he was still a stripling, and later a pupil of Xenocrates, in the Academy” and he therefore “cultivated the noblest behaviour from the very beginning”.  We’re also told that Phocion  had been a follower of Diogenes the Cynic, in the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius.

In a fragment from a lecture by Musonius Rufus “on whether a philosopher will file a suit against someone for assault”

Socrates obviously refused to be upset when he was publicly ridiculed by Aristophanes; indeed, when Socrates met Aristophanes, he asked if Aristophanes would like to make other such use of him. It is unlikely that this man would have become angry if he had been the target of some minor slight, since he was not upset when he was ridiculed in the theater! Phocion the Good, when his wife was insulted by someone, didn’t even consider bringing charges against the insulter. In fact, when that person came to him in fear and asked Phocion to forgive him, saying that he did not know that it was his wife whom he offended, Phocion replied: “My wife has suffered nothing because of you, but perhaps some other woman has. So you don’t need to apologize to me.”

Marcus Aurelius may have heard this story because he also mentions Phocion in relation to enduring the contempt of others.

Will someone feel contempt for me? Let him look to that. But I for my part will look to this, that I may not be discovered doing or saying anything that is worthy of contempt. Will someone hate me? Let him look to that. But I will be kind and good-natured to everyone, and ready to show this particular person the nature of his error, not in a critical spirit, nor as if I were making a display of my tolerance, but sincerely and kindheartedly, like the great Phocion (if he really meant what he said). For that is how one should be within one’s heart, to show oneself to the gods as one who is neither disposed to be angry at anything nor to make any complaint. For what harm can come to you if you are presently doing what is appropriate to your nature, and you welcome what is presently appropriate for universal nature, as someone who is supremely anxious that by one means or another the common benefit should be brought to fruition? (Meditations, 11.13)

Socrates on Finding Jobs for Refugees

Xenophon records several examples of situations in which Socrates would help his friends to cope with difficulties. He was perceived as having a talent for giving sound practical advice. When someone had a problem that could be resolved by knowledge, he would try to educate them. When they faced practical obstacles he would encourage his friends to help one another in various ways. In this dialogue, Xenophon reports a conversation between Socrates and an otherwise unknown man called Aristarchus about how to deal with refugees (Memorabilia, 2.7).  I’ve paraphrased it below, and added a few brief comments for clarification.

The context is perhaps the democrat uprising against the Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for eight months. Xenophon is believed to have left Athens for good a couple of years after this event. A rebel army led by the naval officer Thrasybulus had captured the Piraeus and many democrat exiles rallied there before the final battle that overthrew the oligarchy of the Thirty, and restored democracy in Athens.

The Dialogue

One day, Socrates noticed that Aristarchus appeared rather despondent. “You look as though you were weighed down by something, Aristarchus”, he said. “You ought to share the burden with your friends; perhaps we could even help relieve you a little.” Aristarchus explains his problem. He says that since the “civil war” broke out, and many Athenians fled to the nearby port of Piraeus, a large number of female refugees have gathered under his roof. Including his sisters, nieces, and cousins, there are now fourteen women seeking shelter in his household. Aristarchus is in dire straits. His family can get nothing from their farm because the land has been seized by their opponents. They cannot raise any money from other properties they own because he says the city is practically deserted. There are no potential buyers for one’s belongings and it’s impossible even to raise a loan from anyone. He jokes that you’ve a better chance of finding money by searching for it on the streets than by applying for a loan. Aristarchus is clearly in despair and he says it is very painful to “stand by and watch one’s family die by degrees” because in such difficult circumstances he lacks the resources even to feed so many of them.

Having heard this, Socrates asks how another man, called Ceramon, is able not only to provide for his large household, and feed them, but also to make a profit and become rich, at the same time Aristarchus’ family are dying of want. This is typical Socrates: he often begins by questioning whether other people might respond to the same situation differently. Aristarchus says this is because Ceramon’s household is full of slaves whereas his own problem is supporting free people, his own relatives. Socrates asks whether the free people in Aristarchus’ household are better than the slaves in Ceramon’s. He says that he thinks they are. It’s a shame, muses Socrates, that Ceramon should actually be prospering because of the size of his household whereas Aristarchus is struggling because of his, despite believing them to be better people.

Well, says, Aristarchus, that’s surely because he’s supporting slaves who work for him as craftsmen whereas I’m supporting people who were born and raised in freedom. Socrates responds by asking what it means to be a craftsman or artisan. Aristarchus agrees with his suggestion that it obviously means someone who knows how to make something useful. Now Socrates brainstorms a list of examples… So is hulled barley useful? What about bread? Men’s and women’s coats, shirts, cloaks, or tunics? Aristarchus agrees that all of these things are very useful.

Well, says Socrates, don’t your guests know how to make any of these things? On the contrary, says Aristarchus, they presumably know how to make all of those. Don’t you know, says Socrates, that from one of these trades alone, hulling barley, Nausicydes supports not only himself and his servants but also a large number of pigs and cattle? He has so much to spare that he often carries out public services for the state as well. And didn’t you hear that Cyrebus maintains a whole household and lives in luxury just by baking bread? Then there’s Demeas of Collytus who makes a living by manufacturing cloaks, Meno who weaves blankets, and most of the Megarians earn their living making tunics.

That’s true, replies a hesitant Aristarchus, but these people all keep foreign slaves to do the work for them. They can force them to do whatever happens to be convenient to support the household but I’m dealing with free people, who are my relatives. Do you really think that just because they’re free born and related to you, exclaims Socrates, that they should do nothing but eat and sleep? What about other free people? Don’t you think that people who work and apply themselves energetically to doing something constructive have a better quality of life and aren’t they more fulfilled than those who do nothing useful? Or do you find that idleness and apathy help people to learn and improve, to gain physical health and fitness, and to prosper in life? Surely these female relatives of yours, asks Socrates, didn’t learn these arts because they regarded them as being of no practical benefit? Surely they learned them intending to practice them seriously in a manner that’s of benefit to themselves and others? So is it more sensible for humans to do no work at all or to occupy themselves useful in such things? And which person has more integrity: one who works or one who frets about how to obtain life’s necessities without working?

As things are right now, he adds, I would imagine that there’s no love lost between you and them. You feel that these women are imposing a great burden on you by seeking refuge in your home and they must be able to see that you’re growing irritated with them. So there’s a real danger that animosity will grow to replace your initial feelings of goodwill toward one another. However, if you encourage them to do work, you will naturally begin to feel more positively about their presence when you see that they’re doing something beneficial for you and they will grow more fond of you when they realize that you’re pleased to have them as your guests. Over time, you’ll feel more and more gratitude toward one another, and your relationship will improve – you’ll become good friends.

Now, of course, if the women in your household were forced into some dishonourable occupation in order to survive they might feel like their lives were not worth living anymore. However, as it stands, the work at which they’re already competent seems to be of the sort considered most respectable and appropriate for a woman. Moreover, people always do better, make faster progress, and take more enjoyment in work they understand well. So don’t hesitate to suggest this solution to them as it’s a course of action that will benefit both you and them. I’m sure they’ll be glad to comply. Aristarchus was convinced. He told Socrates that he thought that sounded like great advice. “Until now,” he said, “I’ve been too anxious to borrow because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it back but now I feel that I can justify a loan to get work started.”

Epilogue

Indeed, Xenophon tells us what happened afterwards. As a result of this conversation, he says Aristarchus obtained the capital required to purchase wool for the women. They would start work before breakfast and continue until supper, and became more cheerful as a result of their situation improving. Instead of looking askance at one another the two parties became friends with one another. The women came to look upon Aristarchus as their guardian, and he came to respect them for helping to support the household. Eventually, he went to visit Socrates and was delighted to tell him how well things had worked out. He jokes that although at first he was worried about putting them to work now the women criticize him for being the only person in the household who’s not weaving.

“You should tell them the story about the dog,” said Socrates. They say that back when animals could talk a sheep said to its shepherd: “I don’t understand. We sheep provide you with wool and lambs and cheese but you give us nothing except grass to eat. The dog gives you nothing but you treat him as if he’s special, and share your own meals with him.” The dog overheard and replied: “Quite right too! I am the one to whom you owe your safety. I protect you from being stolen by men or carried off by wolves. If I didn’t keep watch over things you wouldn’t even be able to graze in peace for fear of being killed.” When they heard this argument, says Socrates, even the sheep admitted that the dog deserved his privileges. So you should tell the women who are guests in your home that you’re like the dog in that story, guarding them and taking care of them. It’s through your goodwill that they’re able to live and work in safety, and be happy.”

What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, opinions are going to vary about this.  There are lots of things we could suggest reading.  Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions

You don’t need to read the whole book.  The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings.   However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism).  This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher.  Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.

The Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime.  He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition.  A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus.  If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates

Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato.  Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy.  It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School.  That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery.  Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.

Plato’s Apology

We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology.  The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it.  It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings.  Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them.  Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy.  If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.

Cicero’s De Finibus

Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism.  He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism.  Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics.  This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Honourable Mentions

It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism.  Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch.  There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations.  There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan.  The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences.  The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius.  My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Why I don’t allow Trolling in my Stoicism Group

Stoic AwardEvery few weeks someone will post a comment in my Stoicism Facebook group that goes something along the lines of “If you guys are into Stoicism then I don’t see why you should censor posts just because they’re offensive.”  Or they might just say “Suck it up” or  “You guys aren’t real Stoics, you’re all just f*** snowflakes” or words to that effect.

Sometimes they’re just messing around and being facetious – or just plain trolling the group.  Sometimes, though, I think people actually do mean this sincerely, although on closer inspection the reasoning behind this obviously doesn’t make any sense at all.  I’ve responded to this a few times in detail, explaining why I think they’re mistaken but I think the time has come to write a short blog post so I can just share the link rather than reinvent the wheel and explain the following points every time this idea comes up.

The beautiful and good person neither fights with anyone nor, as much as they are able, permits others to fight… – Epictetus, Discourses 4.5

So here are my reasons for not allowing people to be verbally abusive or insulting toward other group members in my Stoicism forum:

  1. Not everyone in the group is a Stoic.  As I write there are over 40,000 people in my group.  They’re all ages (from 13 up), different genders, nationalities, and from different cultures and religions.  And they’re not all Stoics.  Some are Epicureans, or Buddhists, or existentialists or Nietzscheans or whatever.  Some of them are just people vaguely interested in Stoicism who want to learn a bit more.  So the premise of the argument above that everyone in the group is Stoic is obviously false.
  2. No Stoics are perfect Sages.  The Stoics said that the Sage is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix, which according to legend was born every 500 years.   So there probably aren’t any in our group.  The Stoics admitted they were all imperfect and fallible, even the founders of the school.  So all Stoics sometimes falter and get upset about things because they’re human beings and not perfect Sages.  That doesn’t stop them aspiring to inch closer to that ideal, though.
  3. Even Sages have feelings.  It’s a popular misconception that Stoicism is unemotional and that the ideal is to have no feelings or never to get upset.  The Stoics actually had a sophisticated psychological theory that clearly distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary emotional reactions to events.  So even if we did have a perfect Sage in the group they would still potentially experience propatheiai or automatic flashes of emotional in response to certain things being said or done.   It’s natural that they’d prefer not to have to expose themselves to that repeatedly when they’re trying to have a discussion if it potentially gets in the way.
  4. It’s not about hurting feelings.  The main reason for preventing verbal abuse isn’t to protect someone’s feelings, actually.  As moderator, it’s more about the fact it disrupts the group and prevents people from being able to discuss things rationally.  It would be as if we were trying to have a philosophy seminar and someone ran into the room, jumped on the table and started screaming random insults.  You say “Um, can you maybe stop, or leave?”  And they say “Ha!  You bunch of snowflakes, I thought you were meant to be Stoics – see how I’ve managed to upset you all, frauds!” or whatever.  Well, nobody is actually crying.  The most upset person in the room is probably the crazy person standing screaming on the table.  Everyone else is too busy thinking “What a nutcase!” to take it personally.   It’s the same with trolling.  Nobody really cares.  The irony is that trolls get upset really easily themselves and that’s probably why they assume everyone else is a “Snowflake”.  It’s classic psychological projection.   The real reason for banning them or asking them to leave is just so that everyone else can get on with what they’re trying to discuss without distraction.
  5. It’s not ethical.  Stoicism is a virtue ethic.  The goal of life is to be virtuous and that includes acting with justice, fairness, and kindness toward others, regardless of their race or gender or religion.  (Stoics are ethical cosmopolitans.)  So screaming abuse at people online flies completely in the face of Stoic ethics.  It’s definitely not the sort of behaviour ancient Stoics were talking about when they said that people should act honourably and with affection toward other human beings.  So it’s part of Stoic ethics that we would both avoid acting like this ourselves and, within reason and where nothing prevents us, politely discourage other people from behaving in a vicious and aggressive manner, although whether they do or not is ultimately outside of our control.  (It’s what Stoics call a “preferred indifferent”, something they don’t get upset about but would gently attempt to prevent or change.)

So there you go, if you’ve got to the end of this hopefully it’s at least given you something to think about.  The ground rules of my forum prohibit verbal abuse against other group members and these are the reasons for that policy.  Hope you understand and please treat other people with respect.  Thank you.