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.  It’s probably a reference 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.”

The Royal Purple of Stoicism

Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.

Tyrian PurpleThis is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.

The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.

One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.

Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.

The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.

Murex ShellfishThe bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”

Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.

So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life.  And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:

The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.

As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.

Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.

So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.

Lady Stoics #2: Fannia

Brief article on Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea and wife of Helvidius Priscus, and along with them a member of the Stoic opposition to Nero.

Fannia was part of the “Stoic opposition” against Nero, led by her father, the Stoic political hero Thrasea, along with her celebrated husband Helvidius Priscus.  She lived during the reign of Nero and died around 103 AD, under the reign of Trajan.  In Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting Reading of Thrasea Paetus’ Death Sentence, she is presumably depicted as one of the women who comfort her father, Thrasea.

She was the granddaughter of a famous Roman woman called Arria Major, whom she related the following story about to Pliny the Younger.  Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ordered to commit suicide for his part in a rebellion by the Emperor Claudius.  He did not have the courage to take his own life so Arria grabbed the dagger from him, stabbed herself with it, and returned it to him saying “It doesn’t hurt, Paetus!

Pliny the Younger described Fannia herself as a woman of fortitude and respectability but a political rebel. She followed her husband Helvidius Priscus into exile when he was banished by Nero for sympathizing with the Republican heroes Brutus and Cassius (which Nero prohibited).  She then followed him into exile for a second time under Vespasian for opposing his reign.  Priscus was later executed by Vespasian.

Fannia herself was exiled by Domitian in 93 AD for asking the Stoic Herennius Senecio to write a biography praising her late husband, and Herennius was executed.  During his trial, Fannia was asked threateningly if she’d instructed Herennius to write the book and she boldly confirmed that she had given her husband’s diaries to him.  Pliny writes that: “she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself.”  Her possessions were seized, but Fannia saved her husband’s diaries and the biography of him.

When she was sick and apparently dying, her friend Pliny wrote of her:

Only her spirit is vigorous, worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea. but everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again.  What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy!

He goes on to say:

How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once-two qualities rarely found in the same person. Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example, whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants. How great must be their virtues and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19.L)


Marcus Aurelius at the Amphitheatre

Description of Marcus Aurelius at the amphitheatre and circus, observing the games, and how he tried to use this as an opportunity to rehearse his practice of Stoic philosophy.

GladiatorsAs a young man Marcus himself was fond of boxing and wrestling.  He was fit enough to spear wild boars from horseback, and to practice fighting in armour.  However, some said that as he became more committed to his studies of literature and philosophy, he neglected his body, and these sort of activities, and so gradually became less physically fit and strong, and less interested in watching the games and races.  As a child, his first tutor taught him that it was wise not to take the side of the Green Jacket or the Blue in the races, or to back the light-shield champion or the heavy-shield in the lists, and so on (1.5).  His brother Lucius was completely caught up in these tribal attitudes about the races and games but to Marcus it was an absurd distraction from his duties as emperor.

He came to loathe the amphitheatre and similar public spectacles but felt obliged to attend, at the insistence of his friends and advisors.  Marcus was so averse to the thought of unnecessary bloodshed that when the audience insisted that a lion that had been trained to devour humans should be brought into the arena he refused to look at it.  The people demanded that the lion-trainer should be made a citizen and frequently protested about this but Marcus, who was normally in favour of greater enfranchisement of slaves, refused and even had it publicly proclaimed that the man had done nothing to deserve his freedom.  Indeed, it was said he restricted the gladiatorial games in many ways.  He insisted that the gladiators before him would use blunted weapons, fighting like athletes, without any risk to their lives.  He likewise introduced a law requiring that the young entertainers who danced on tightropes should be given safety nets, to prevent any of them being injured.

Later, during the first Marcomannic War, at the height of the plague, Marcus was forced to take emergency measures to replace lost troops and defend Rome against the barbarian incursions.  He recruited gladiators, taking them away from the arena, arming them and calling them The Compliant.  When he did this there was unrest among the people who complained that he was going to take away their entertainment and drive them all to the study of philosophy.  He was careful not to openly criticise their crass tastes but nevertheless it was well-known that he looked down on such things, and some people resented him for doing so.

They openly ridiculed him as a snob and a bore because they could clearly see that though present at the circus he was ignoring the games to read documents and discuss them with his advisors.  Marcus was told he had to show his face at these events, to keep the Roman people happy, but the entertainments bored him and he wanted to use the time instead to address the serious business of running the state.  Though he would allow himself to be persuaded to go to the games, and theatre, and hunting, etc.,  his heart was no longer in these pursuits.

When required to attend, Marcus tried to make best use of the situation by treating it as an opportunity to practice contemplative exercises, viewing the games he observed as spiritual metaphors, through the lens of Stoic philosophy.  Although the crowds were addicted to them, the shows seemed very monotonous to him so he contemplated their tedious and repetitive nature as symbolising the whole of human life.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, from the Stoic perspective (6.46).  Different fighters and animals enter the arena but fundamentally it’s the same thing over and over again.  Every day our lives are superficially different but from a deeper perspective, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re still facing the same fundamental challenges.  Pain and suffering may take countless different forms but the wise man is still faced with the same basic challenge of enduring them.  Marcus tells himself:

Remaining no better than you are and allowing yourself to be torn apart by such a life is worthy of a foolish and greedy man, and resembles the life of the wild-beast fighters who are half-devoured in the arena, who through a mass of wounds and gore, beg to be kept until the next day, only to be thrown again, though wounded, into the arena, to be rent by the same teeth and claws. (10.8)

Marcus himself had boxed and wrestled as a youth and was particularly interested how the violent sport known as pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, kicking and choking, could serve as an allegory for life.  As he watched the pankratiasts, for example, he told himself that life is more like wrestling than dancing because we have to be ready to stand unshaken against every assault, no matter how unforeseen (7.61).

We can also learn something about how to deal with overwhelming events from the training of these sportsmen:

Analyze a piece of music into its notes and ask yourself of each in isolation: “Does this overpower me?”  The same is true in the pankration; if you analyze the fight into each individual move, it will seem less overwhelming.  Do this with everything except with the good, with virtue.  But  dissect all external things objectively, into smaller parts, until they lose their power over your mind (11.2).

Indeed, Marcus tells himself that in his use of Stoic philosophical doctrines, he should imitate the pankratiasts, who box and wrestle, rather than the gladiators.  The gladiator lays aside the sword he uses, and picks it up again.  But the barehanded fighter is always armed and needs only to clench his fist. (12.9)

Marcus had trained in painting as a youth, indeed it was his painting teacher Diognetus who introduced him to philosophy.  So with the eye of a painter he also considers how beauty can be found even in these tiresome spectacles, such as the wild beasts released against the animal-fighters.  

Gladiator Tiger

The byproducts of natural processes have a particular type of charm when viewed in the right context, as part of something greater.  The cracks that appear when bread is baked are like random flaws but stimulate our appetite.  Even the furrowed brow of an angry lion in the arena, or the foam dripping from a wild-boar’s jaws during a hunt, are not things of beauty when viewed in isolation, but as part of a magnificent creature, they lend something to its overall appearance.  The wise man sees beauty in all things, even if it is only as a byproduct of something else’s beauty.  He will even look on the fearsome gaping jaws of real wild beasts with no less pleasure than the representations of them in works of art by painters and sculptors.  There are many such things that the foolish cannot appreciate but in which the wise can learn to distinguish a different kind of aesthetic value (3.2.1-2).  Indeed, all things come from the same source, from Nature, even the terrifying jaws of the lion and such things are but side-effects of the grand and beautiful.  So do not be alienated even from these things but see them as part of the whole, and originating in the one source of all things (6.36.2).

This is how Marcus passes his time at these events.  As a Stoic, his duty is to try to respond with wisdom and virtue in even the most banal environment, even when bored and confronted with something that seems the opposite of edifying to him.  He does this by making meaning from the situation, like an artist, viewing the fighters and the animals as expressing something greater and more noble, providing him with a way to reconnect with his spiritual and philosophical values, and to transcend the mediocrity of his surroundings, and to rise above the clamour of the baying crowd that surround him.  In later years, on campaign in the northern frontier, he would use some of the same mental strategies that he’d been rehearsing for years trapped in his seat at the circus, to retain his composure when faced with the real horrors of war.

An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

Description of a simple meditation technique derived from a method described by Athenodorus combined with the psychological processes defined by Marcus Aurelius.

Athenodorus in the haunted houseWhen I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes marginally more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed that it required a bit of patience.

Augustus / OctavianThe point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical significance from the technique, at least in terms of the physiological relaxation effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics said about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus says here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural – despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.

Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Physics

Excerpt from The Meditations in which Marcus lists what he considers to be the few doctrines of Physics that are sufficient for him, and reminds himself to set aside his books.

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius says to himself in The Meditations that he’s grateful he wasn’t distracted from the essence of Stoic philosophy, living as a Stoic, by reading too many books on Logic and Physics.  He thanks the gods:

[…] that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of celestial phenomena; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. (Meditations, 1.17)

This is followed by an interesting couple of passages near the start of Book 2, in which Marcus lists a series of Stoic doctrines about Physics, concerning human nature and the nature of the universe.  He concludes by saying that these doctrines are enough for him.  These are sandwiched between two reminders to set aside his textbooks.

Throw away your books!  No longer distract yourself with them: it is not allowed.  But as if you were already dying, look down upon the flesh.  It is nothing but blood and bones and a network, a network of nerves, veins, and arteries. Consider the breath also, what kind of a thing it is, air, and not always the same, but every moment expelled and then drawn in again. The third part is the ruling faculty [hegemonikon].  Consider that you are an old man; no longer let yourself be a slave, no longer like a puppet whose strings are pulled by selfish impulses.  No longer be dissatisfied either with your present lot, nor dread the future.

All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separate from nature or from interweaving and interlacing with the things which ordered by Providence. From that all things flow, and there is also necessity, and that which is for the welfare of the whole universe, of which you are a part. But that which the nature of the whole brings about, and what serves to maintain this nature, is good for every part of nature. Now the universe is preserved, by the changes of the elements but also by the changes of things compounded of the elements.

Let these doctrines be enough for you, hold them always as fixed principles [dogmas]. But cast away your thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from your heart thankful to the gods.  (Meditations, 2.2-3)

Marcus on the Emperor Antoninus Pius

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius’ description of the virtues of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in The Meditations.

Antoninus PiusIn the first book of The Meditations, Marcus has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges.  We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy.

Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”.  It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus.  We know Antoninus sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.

He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics.  Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods, which is something the philosophers, especially the Cynics, were known for attacking.  However, Marcus particularly notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.

The example that he gave of utilising without pride, and at the same time without any apology, all the lavish gifts of Fortune that contribute towards the comfort of life, so as to enjoy them when present as a matter of course, and, when absent, not to miss them.

This is so important that he seems to repeat it a few paragraphs later, comparing it to the legendary self-mastery of Socrates.  He says that Antoninus considered everything calmly (with ataraxia) and methodically, and that:

One might apply to him what is told of Socrates, that he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that many are not strong enough to refrain from and to o much inclined to enjoy.  But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to be abstemious in the other is characteristic of a man who has a perfect and indomitable soul, as was seen in the case of Maximus.

Presumably, Marcus is here comparing Antoninus to one of his favourite Stoic tutors, Claudius Maximus, whom he praises for “self-mastery” and “cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances”.

Marcus also thanked the gods:

That I was subordinated to a ruler and a father capable of ridding me of all conceit, and of bringing me to recognise that it is possible to live in a Court and yet do without bodyguards and gorgeous garments and linkmen and statues and the like pomp; and that it is in such a man’s power to reduce himself very nearly to the condition of a private individual and yet not on this account to be more paltry or more remiss in dealing with what the interests of the state require to be done in imperial fashion.

We know from the histories that on his deathbed, Antoninus gave the tribune of the night-watch the password of the day as aequanimitas (equanimity) before lapsing into sleep, and dying peacefully.  As was often the case, this final phrase was taken as symbolic of his reign.