Living the Stoic Life at Exeter University

Link to the Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog at the University of Exeter for the thirty-page handbook that’s been designed, and just put online this evening, for those wishing to experiment with the Stoic way of living.

Living the Stoic Life at Exeter

See the link below to the Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog at the University of Exeter for the thirty-page handbook that’s been designed, and just put online this evening, for those wishing to experiment with the Stoic way of living.

Stoic Handbook: Living the Stoic Life


Stoicism in Horace’s Satires

Excerpt from a Satire by the Roman poet Horace, in which he portrays his slave delivering a speech based on Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism in Horace’s Satires

The Roman poet Horace (65- 8 BC) explicitly refers to Stoicism several times in his Satires and Epistles, and there appear to be many more Stoic influences scattered throughout his work.  Horace studied philosophy in Athens but scholars disagree as to whether he was primarily a Stoic, an Epicurean, or an eclectic.

One of the Satires (2.7) describes a speech delivered to Horace during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, called Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.  Can you
lay claim to a single one of these qualities?  A woman demands
a small fortune, bullies you, slams the door, saturates you
with cold water – and invites you back.  Tear that degrading yoke from your neck!  Come on, say you are free!  You can’t.
For a cruel master is riding your soul, jabbing the spurs
in your weary flanks, and hauling round your head when you shy. […]

Moreover, you can’t stand so much as an hour of your own company
or spend your leisure properly; you avoid yourself like a truant
or fugitive, hoping by drink or sleep to elude Angst.
But it’s no good, for that dark companion stays on your heels.

The first excerpt above resembles several passages from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), written over 200 years later:

Are you affected by pain or pleasure? Your senses must look to that. Did something stand in the way of your impulse? If you exercised your impulse without reservation the hindrance will be detrimental to you as a rational being, but if you anticipated the obstacle, you are not yet harmed or hindered. As to the operations of your intellect, no other person is in a position to hinder them; for neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way. When it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, it always remains so. (8.41)

He repeats this metaphor of the sphere again, attributing it to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:

There are three things of which you are composed: body, breath, and mind. Of these, the first two are your own in so far as it is your duty to take care of them; but only the third is your own in the full sense. So if you will put away from yourself—that is to say, from your mind—all that others do or say, and all that you yourself have done or said, and all that troubles you with regard to the future, and all that belongs to the body which envelops you, and to the breath conjoined with it, or is attached to you independently of your will, and all that the vortex whirling around outside you sweeps in its wake, so that the power of your mind, thus delivered from the bonds of fate, may live a pure and unfettered life alone with itself doing what is just, desiring what comes to pass, and saying what is true—if, I say, you will put away from your ruling centre all that accretes to it from the affections of the body, and all that lies in the future or in time gone by, and make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, ‘a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it’, and strive to live only the life that is your own, that is to say, your present life, then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you until you die in calm and kindliness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him. (12.3)

Elsewhere, Marcus appears to refer once more to this Empedoclean “sphere”:

The soul is “a sphere truly shaped”, when it neither projects itself towards anything outside nor shrinks together inwardly, neither expands nor contracts, but irradiates a light whereby it sees the reality of all things and the reality that is in itself. (Meditations, 11.12)

Empedocles was a very ancient Pythagorean-influenced philosopher.  The Stoics in general make many references to Pythagorean theories and practices, which this should probably be grouped alongside.  It’s possible that Marcus had read this passage from Horace and was influenced by it.  However, it may be more likely that they are both drawing upon a third, older, unnamed Stoic source, that makes use of this concept from Empedocles.

The second excerpt from Horace above, about “that dark companion”, also resembles a Pythagorean text called The Golden Verses, which is cited by both Epictetus and Seneca, and clearly played an important role in Stoicism:

Men shall you find whose sorrows themselves have created,
Wretches who see not the Good, that is too near, nothing they hear;
Few know how to help themselves in misfortune.
That is the Fate that blinds humanity; in circles,
Hither and yon they run in endless sorrows;
For they are followed by a grim companion, disunion within themselves;
Unnoticed; never rouse him, and fly from before him!
Father Zeus, O free them all from sufferings so great,
Or show unto each the daemon, who is their guide!

Poll: Who is your Favourite Stoic

Online poll: Who is your favourite Stoic? Cast your vote and see the results so far.

Who is your Favourite Stoic?

Cast your own vote to see the previous results here or on the University of Exeter Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog.

Cato’s Speech on Stoic Philosophy from Lucan’s The Civil War

An excerpt from Lucan’s epic poem The Civil War (or Pharsalia) in which Cato the Younger delivers a speech on Stoic philosophy.

Cato’s Speech on Stoic Philosophy

From Lucan’s The Civil War

Cato-Statue(Quotations from the translation by Susan H. Braund.)

The poet Lucan (39-65 AD) was the nephew and student of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (4-65 AD), and his epic The Civil War (De Bello Civili), also known as the Pharsalia after the Battle of Pharsalus, is steeped in Stoic philosophical themes and terminology.  It describes the Great Roman Civil War (49-45 BC) between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey.

In the Pharsalia, Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) is portrayed as a Stoic hero or warrior-sage, because of his defence of the Roman Republic and defiance of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  In Book Two, Cato is introduced as follows by Brutus:

‘Of Virtue long ago expelled and banished from all lands
you are now the sole support, and Fortune will not with any whirlwind
strike her from you: I call on you, as I hesitate and waver,
to guide and reinforce me with your resolute strength.’

Then Cato’s character is described by Lucan:

This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring: for Rome he is father and for Rome he is husband,
keeper of justice and guardian of strict morality,
his goodness was for the state; into none of Cato’s acts
did self-centred pleasure creep in and take a share.

In Book Nine, Cato marches his beleaguered troops through the deserts of Africa, where they endure many hardships, and suffer many casualties.  However, they are inspired to persevere in the face of great adversity by Cato’s example.  At one point, Cato’s army come across the only temple to Jupiter (or Zeus), under the name of Ammon, in the surrounding lands.  A general who had defected from Caesar’s army, Labienus, urges Cato to consult the oracle about their fate in the civil war.  However, Cato refuses to do so, because of his Stoic principles, and instead becomes a kind of oracle himself, delivering a short speech on Stoic doctrine to reproach and inspire his men.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask?  Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know.  Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence?  Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does.  Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’  So declaring
he departed from the altars with the temples credit intact,
leaving Ammon to the peoples, uninvestigated.

Video: Stoic Philosophy and Psychotherapy Workshop at Exeter University

Video from Exeter University about the recent workshop on Stoic Philosophy and Psychotherapy.

Stoic Philosophy & Psychotherapy Workshop

Video from Exeter University October 2012

See the Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog at the University of Exeter for more information…

Donald Robertson is the author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) and the forthcoming Teach yourself Stoicism (in press).

The Stoicism of Descartes

Excerpt about Descartes and Stoicism from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) by Donald Robertson

The Stoicism of Descartes

Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

descartesCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.

Writing in the 17th century, Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, describes how his famous epistemological meditations led him to develop a moral code, based upon three central maxims.  The first two of these refer to respect for custom and consistency in life.  However, Descartes account of his third maxim provides a striking expression of his assimilation of certain Stoic ideas, in the third chapter of his Discourse on Method:

My third maxim was always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contented. For, our will tending by nature to desire only what our understanding represents to it as somehow possible, it is certain that, if we consider all the goods that are outside us as equally beyond our power, we will have no more regrets about lacking those that seem owed to us as our birthright when we are deprived of them through no fault of our own, than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and that, making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds. 

This is one form of the Stoic contemplation upon necessity and determinism.  It is clear, as the ancient philosophers observed, that nobody really feels pity for an infant because it cannot walk or speak, although we may feel differently about an adult who is dumb or lame.  People do not become frustrated because they cannot grow wings and fly but they do often envy the wealth and possessions of others.  Accepting that something is outside of our control often seems to mean that we give up our desire for it but people often seem to torture themselves with goals that, although possible for other people or for them at another stage in life, are not currently within their power to achieve (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.21).  For example, many people wish they could change the past, or wish that they were rich and famous, demands which are either illogical, physically impossible, or unrealistic given the limitations of their current circumstances.  However, Descartes continues:

But I admit that long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view; and I believe that it is principally in this that the secret of those philosophers [such as Socrates and the Stoics] consists, who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness. For occupying themselves ceaselessly with considering the limits prescribed to them by nature, they so perfectly persuaded themselves that nothing was in their power but their affection for other things, and they controlled their thoughts so absolutely that in this they had some reason for reckoning themselves richer, more powerful, freer, and happier than any other men who, not having this philosophy, never thus controlled everything they wished to control, however favoured by nature and fortune they might be. 

Example Stoic Philosophy Regime

Example outline of a Stoic therapeutic regime for daily practice, based on the ancient sources, modified from The Philosophy of CBT (2010) by Donald Robertson

Modified Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010)

The Philosophy of CBT Cover

Update: Since I wrote this article, people have been asking me for a short guide so I created a five-page PDF called The Stoic Therapy Toolkit, which you can download free of charge from my e-learning site.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.

It is difficult, probably impossible, to do justice to the variety of therapeutic concepts, strategies, and techniques recommended by Stoic philosophers in an outline such as this. Nevertheless, I hope that by attempting to do so in relatively plain English, I will help to clarify their “art of living” somewhat, in a manner that may be of service to those who wish to make use of classical philosophy in modern life, for the purposes of self-help or personal development. It probably requires the self-discipline for which Stoics were renowned to follow a regime like this in full, and I imagine that the intention was to begin by attempting one step at a time. I certainly don’t propose this as an evidence-based treatment protocol but rather as an attempt to reconstruct the Stoic regime for discussion.


The chief goal of Stoicism, from the time of its founder Zeno, was expressed as “follow nature”.  Chrysippus distinguished between two senses implicit in this: following our own nature and following the Nature of the world.  Hence, Epictetus later expressed a general principle at the start of his famous Handbook, which the latterday Stoic the Early of Shaftesbury called the “Sovereign” precept of Stoicism:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.  Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. (Enchiridion, 1)

Those things that our under our control, essentially our own voluntary thoughts and actions, should be performed in harmony with our nature as rational beings, i.e., with wisdom and the other forms of excellence (arete).  Those things outside of our direct control should be accepted as Fated by the “string of causes” that forms the universe, as if they were the Will of God, and indifferent with regard to the perfection of our own nature, which constitutes human “happiness” or flourishing (eudaimonia).  Following nature in this way, according to the Stoics, is living wisely and leads to freedom (eleutheria), fearlessness (aphobia), overcoming irrational fear and desire (apatheia), absence of distress (ataraxia), serenity (euroia) and a “smooth flow of life”.


1. Meditation

1.1. Take time to calm your mind and gather your thoughts before preparing for the day ahead.  Be still and turn your attention inward, withdraw into yourself, or isolate yourself from others and walk in silence in a pleasant and serene environment.

1.2. The View from Above. Observe (or just imagine) the rising sun and the stars at daybreak, and think of the whole cosmos and your place within it.

2. The Prospective Morning Meditation 

2.1. Mentally rehearse generic precepts, e.g., the “Sovereign” general precept of Stoicism: “Some things are under our control and others are not”.

2.2. Mentally rehearse any potential challenges of the day ahead, and the specific precepts required to cope wisely with them, perhaps making use of the previous evening’s self-analysis.  When planning any activity, even something trivial like visiting a public bath, imagine beforehand the type of things that could go wrong or hinder your plans and tell yourself: “I want to do such-and-such and at the same time to keep my volition [prohairesis] in harmony with nature” (Enchiridion, 4).  That way if your actions are later obstructed you can say: “Oh well, this was not all that I had willed but also to keep my volition in harmony with nature and I cannot do so if I am upset at what’s going on” (Enchiridion, 4).  (In other words, plan to act with the “reserve clause” for you are not upset by things but by your judgement about what you desired to achieve or avoid, and what is good or bad.)

2.2.1. Praemeditatio Malorum.  Periodically contemplate apparent “catastrophes” such as illness, poverty, bereavement and especially your own death, rehearse facing such calamities “philosophically”, i.e., with rational composure, in order to overcome your attachment to external things (Enchiridion, 21).  Contemplate the uncertainty of the future and the value of enjoying the here and now. Remember you must die, i.e., that as a mortal being each moment counts and the future is uncertain.

3. Contemplation of the Sage

3.1. Periodically contemplate the ideal of the Sage, try to put his philosophical attitudes into a few plain words, what must he tell himself when faced with the same adversities you must overcome? Memorise these precepts and try to apply them yourself. Adopt a role-model such as Socrates, or someone whose wisdom and other virtues you admire.  When you’re not sure how to handle some encounter, ask yourself: “What would Socrates or Zeno have done in this situation?” (Enchiridion, 33)

Throughout the Day

1. Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (prosoche). Identify with your essential nature as a rational being, and learn to prize wisdom and the other virtues as the chief good in life.  Continually bring your attention back to your character, actions, and judgements, in the here and now, during any given situation.  When dealing with externals, be like a passenger who has temporarily gone ashore on a boat trip, keep one eye on the boat at all times (on yourself, your character) and be prepared at any moment to have to return onboard at the call of the captain, i.e., to abandon externals and give your whole attention again to yourself, your own attitudes and actions (Enchiridion, 7).  As if you were walking barefoot and cautious not to tread on something sharp, be mindful continually of your leading faculty (your intellect and volition) and guard against it being harmed (corrupted) by your own foolish actions (Enchiridion, 38).  All of your attention should focus on the care of your mind (Enchiridion, 41).  In response to every situation in life, ask yourself what faculty or virtue nature has given you to best deal with it, e.g., courage, restraint, etc., and continually seek opportunities to exercise these virtues (Enchiridion, 10).

2. Indifference & Acceptance. View external things with indifference.  Tell yourself: “For me every event is beneficial if I so wish, because it is within my power to derive benefit from every experience” (Enchiridion, 18) – cf. Nietzsche: “From the military school of life [Stoicism?]: What does not kill me can only make me stronger.”  Serenely accept the given moment as if you had chosen your own destiny, “will your fate” after it has happened (Enchiridion, 8). Accept the hand which fate has dealt you.

3. Evaluating Profit (lusiteles).  Think of life as a series of transactions, selling your actions and judgements in return for experiences.  What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose yourself?  However, virtue is always profitable, because it is a reward enough in itself but also leads to many other good things, such as friendship. Accepting that your fate entails the occasional loss of external things is the price nature demands for your sanity (Enchiridion, 12).  If the price you pay for external things is that you enslave yourself to them or to other people then be grateful that if you renounce them you have profited by saving your freedom, if upon that you put a higher value (Enchiridion, 25).

4. Cognitive Distancing.  When you are upset, tell yourself that it is your judgement that upsets you and not, e.g., external events or the actions of others.  First of all, then, try not to be swept along by the impression but delay responding to the situation until you have had time to regain your composure and self-control (Enchiridion, 20).  Likewise, when you  have the automatic thought that something is pleasurable or desirable, be cautious that you don’t get carried away by appearances, but generally delay your response (Enchiridion, 34).  Then contemplate together both the experience of enjoying the pleasure and any negative consequences or feelings of regret that are likely to follow; compare this to the image of yourself praising yourself for abstaining from it (Enchiridion, 34).  When some apparent misfortune befalls you, consider how you would view it if it befell someone else, e.g., when someone else loses a loved one we might say, “Such things happen in life” (Enchiridion, 26).

5. Empathic Understanding.  When someone acts like your enemy, insults or opposes you, remember that he was only doing what seemed to him the right thing, he didn’t know any better, and say: “It seemed so to him” (Enchiridion, 42).  When you witness someone apparently doing something badly, abandon your value judgement and stick with a description of the bare facts of his behaviour, because you cannot know what he did was bad without knowing his judgements and intentions (Enchiridion, 45).

6. Physical Self-Control Training.  Train yourself, in private without making a show of it, to endure physical hardship and renounce unnecessary desires, e.g., practice drinking only water, or when thirsty holding water in your mouth for a moment and then spitting it out without drinking it (Enchiridion, 47).  Withdraw your aversion (or desire to avoid) from things not under your control and focus it instead on what is against your own nature (or unhealthy) among your own voluntary judgements and actions (Enchiridion, 2).  Likewise, abandon desire for things outside of your control.  However, Epictetus also advises students of Stoicism to temporarily suspend desire for the good things under their control, until they have a firmer grasp of these things (Enchiridion, 2).  Engage in physical exercise, but primarily to develop your psychological endurance and self-discipline rather than your body.

7. Impermanence & Acceptance.  Contemplate the transience of material things, how things are made and then destroyed over time, and the temporary nature of pleasure, pain, and reputation. View external things as gifts on loan from the gods and rather than say “I have lost it” say “I have given it back” (Enchiridion, 11).  Think of the essence of things, and what they really are.

8. Act with the “Reserve Clause”.  At first, rather than being guided by your feelings for or against things (desire or aversion), use judgement to guide your voluntary actions (or “impulses”) toward and away from things, but do so lightly and without straining and with the “reserve clause”, i.e., adding “Fate permitting” to every intention to act upon externals (Enchiridion, 2).

9. Natural Affection (Philostorgia) & Philanthropy. Contemplate the virtues of both your friends and enemies. Empathise with everyone. Try to understand their motives and imagine what they are thinking. Praise even a spark of strength and wisdom and try to imitate what is good. Ask yourself what errors might cause those who offend you to act in an inconsiderate, unhappy or unenlightened manner. Love mankind, and wish your enemies to become so happy and enlightened that they cease to be your enemies, Fate permitting.

10. Affinity (Oikeiôsis) and Cosmic Consciousness. Think of yourself as part of the whole cosmos, indeed imagine the whole of space and time as one and your place within it. Imagine that everything is inter-connected and determined by the whole, and that you and other people are like individual cells within the body of the universe.


1. The Retrospective Evening Meditation

Mentally review the whole of the preceding day three times from beginning to end, and even the days before if necessary.

1.1. What done amiss?  Ask yourself what mistakes you made and condemn (not yourself but) what actions you did badly; do so in a moderate and rational manner.

1.2. What done?  Ask yourself what virtue, i.e., what strength or wisdom you showed, and sincerely praise yourself for what you did well.

1.3. What left undone?  Ask yourself what could be done better, i.e., what you should do instead next time if a similar situation occurs.

2. Relaxation  & Sleep

2.1. Adopt an attitude of contentment and satisfaction with the day behind you. (As if you could die pleased with your life so far.) Relax your body and calm your mind so that your sleep is as tranquil and composed as possible, the preceding exercise will help you achieve a sense of satisfaction and also tire your mind.


Appendix: Summary of Stoic Practices

To give you an idea of the breadth of Stoic practice, I’ve added a bullet-point list of some of the techniques found in the literature…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Virtues of Other People: Look for examples of virtues among your friends, family, colleagues, etc.
  3. Self-Control Training: Take physical exercise to strengthen self-discipline, practice drinking just water, eat plain food, live modestly, etc.
  4. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole.
  5. The View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  6. Objective Representation: Describe events to yourself in objective language, without rhetoric or value judgements.
  7. Contemplation of Death: Contemplate your own death regularly, the deaths  of loved ones and even the demise of the universe itself.
  8. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
  9. The Financial Metaphor: View your actions as financial transactions and consider whether your behaviour is profitable, e.g., if you sacrifice externals but gain virtue that’s profitable but, by contrast, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses himself.”
  10. Accepting Fate (Amor Fati): Rather than seeking for things to be as you will, rather will for things to be as they are, and your life will go smoothly and serenely.
  11. Say to External Things: “It is nothing to me.”
  12. Say Over Loved-Ones: “Tomorrow you will die.”
  13. Cognitive Distancing: Tell yourself it is your judgement that upset you and not the thing itself.
  14. Postponement: Delay responding to things that evoke passion until you have regained your composure.
  15. Picture the Consequences: Imagine what will happen if you act on a desire and compare this to what will happen if you resist it.
  16. Cognitive Distancing: When something upsetting happens to you, imagine how you would view the same thing if it befell someone else and say, “Such things happen in life.”
  17. Empathy: Remember that no man does evil knowingly and when someone does what doesn’t seem right, say to yourself: “It seemed so to him.”
  18. Contemplate the Transience of all Things: When you lose something or someone say “I have given it back” instead of “I have lost it”, and view change as natural and inevitable.