What Seneca Really Said about Epicureanism

Survey of Seneca’s remarks about Epicurus in the Letters to Lucilius, and elsewhere.

EpicurusPeople often notice that, despite being a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus favourably at the start of the Letters to Lucilius.  That’s hard to miss.  He mentions him in about the first thirty letters, and periodically thereafter.  Seneca also refers to Epicurus and Epicureanism, albeit sometimes more indirectly, throughout his other writings.

From that evidence people occasionally leap to the conclusion that Seneca was espousing a hybrid of Epicureanism and Stoicism, or at least that he had assimilated significant Epicurean ideas into his version of Stoicism.  This would be surprising, of course, because the Stoics were generally known for their ardent criticism of Epicureanism.  They traditionally saw it as fundamentally opposed not only to their own philosophy but to most schools of Hellenistic philosophy derived from Socratic ethics.  The Discourses of Epictetus, for example, contain very blunt and hostile criticism of Epicureanism.  The same criticisms are made by Seneca, typically with greater diplomacy but, as we’ll see he was also sometimes extremely hostile toward Epicureanism.  These appear to be well-established Stoic lines of argument, that probably derive from much earlier sources.  The main bone of contention was that most schools of philosophy viewed the doctrine that virtue is an end-in-itself (“virtue is its own reward”) as fundamental.  The Epicureans were one of the few schools to reject this view, and to propose instead that virtue in itself is of merely instrumental value, as a means to attaining pleasure (hedone) or tranquility (ataraxia).

At the beginning of the Letters to Lucilius, Seneca actually seems quite positive about Epicureanism.  Although, as we’ll see, his compliments are carefully qualified.  As he proceeds, in the later letters, he begins to intersperse more serious criticisms.  Likewise, elsewhere in his writings, such as On Benefits, Seneca is scathingly critical of Epicurean ethics.  One interpretation that scholars have offered is that Seneca wrote the Letters to Lucilius precisely in order to persuade Epicureans to “convert” to the Stoic philosophy.  He goes out of his way here to open with references to Epicurus and to emphasise areas of apparent common ground, leaving his criticisms until later.

He sometimes praises Epicurus’ character, while nevertheless attacking his philosophy.  Indeed, it was a common strategy among other Hellenistic authors to argue that certain philosophers are more praiseworthy than their teachings, i.e., that their own character and way of life was inconsistent with their philosophy.  Even within the Letters to Lucilius, therefore, Seneca makes it clear right from the outset that Epicureanism is to be viewed as the enemy camp:

The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp – not as a deserter but as a scout. (Letters, 2)

Note that here as elsewhere, such as in On Leisure, Seneca stresses that he is merely scouting out Epicureanism and not deserting Stoicism, in any sense.  He later explains,

It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’ noble words instead of words taken from our own school.  But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? (Letters, 8)

He says several times that the quotes he draws from Epicurus typically articulate very commonplace ideas found in the writings of many earlier philosophers, poets, and playwrights.  There are many ideas expressed by the Stoic school which we should not be surprised to find echoed elsewhere.  However, that does not mean that the Stoics or Seneca agree with everything, or even the main things, said by these other authors.  Indeed, Seneca is implicitly criticising Epicurus by pointing out that what is good in Epicureanism is not unique, and what is unique in it is not good.

By the ninth letter, Seneca is openly criticising Epicureanism, however.  He rejects the Epicurean doctrine that the wise man needs friends to achieve the goal of living a truly pleasant life, free from fear and pain.  The Stoic position is that the wise man is self-sufficient but that he prefers to have friends, fate permitting.  Seneca quotes a letter of Epicurus as saying that the wise man needs friends for the reason:

That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want.

Seneca, like other Stoics, criticises Epicurus for teaching his followers to develop what we call today “fairweather friendships”.  Friends are valued by the Epicureans only as a means to the end of protecting their own peace of mind, comfort, and tranquillity.  This is something Seneca, like other Stoics, sees as morally reprehensible.  Seneca writes:

He who regards himself only [i.e., his own self-interest], and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.  The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chains such a friend will desert him.  These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. […] He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.  (Letter, 8)

The Stoics believe that genuine friendship is based on love of another person’s character, because they are good (virtuous), and share our values, not merely because having them as our friend is expedient.  (What happens when their company ceases to be calming?  Do we ditch them?)

In Letter thirteen, Seneca opens by praising the philosophy of Epicurus:

I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern: for this much talked of pleasure is reduced to a very narrow compass, and he bids pleasure submit to the same law which we bid virtue do – I mean, to obey nature. (Letters, 13)

However, he immediately qualifies this by saying that Epicureanism lends itself to abuse and misinterpretation by contemporary adherents looking for an excuse to justify their own bad habits

Luxury, however, is not satisfied with what is enough for nature.  What is the consequence?  Whoever thinks that happiness consists in lazy sloth, and alternations of gluttony and profligacy, requires a good patron for a bad action, and when he has become an Epicurean, having been led to do so by the attractive name of that school, he follows, not the pleasure which he there hears spoken of, but that which he brought thither with him, and, having learned to think that his vices coincide with the maxims of that philosophy, he indulged in them no longer timidly and in dark corners, but boldly in the face of day.  I will not, therefore, like most of our school, say that the sect of Epicurus is the teacher of crime, but what I say is: it is ill spoken of, it has a bad reputation, and yet it does not deserve it.

Once again, Seneca begins by apparently praising the virtue of the Epicurean school, and defending it against critics, but then subtly shifts toward criticism as the letter proceeds.  He does this by blaming Epicurus himself for fostering this popular misinterpretation of his philosophy.  He portrays the Epicurean schools as a brave man dressed in effeminate clothing, noisily banging a drum to draw attention.  Apparently in reference to the motto above the door to the Garden (“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”) Seneca writes:

Choose, then, some honorable superscription for your school, some writing which shall in itself arouse the mind: that which at present stands over your door has been invented by the vices.

Clearly, this no longer sounds like praise of Epicureanism, the tone has shifted dramatically toward criticism.  He immediately proceeds to argue that making pleasure the supreme goal of life, as Epicurus did, is problematic unless it is subordinated to reason.

He who ranges himself on the side of virtue [i.e., the Stoics] gives thereby a proof of a noble disposition: he who follows pleasure [i.e., the Epicureans] appears to be weakly, worn out, degrading his manhood, likely to fall into infamous vices unless someone discriminates his pleasures for him, so that he may know which remain within the bounds of natural desire, which are frantic and boundless, and become all the more insatiable the more they are satisfied.  But come!

However, whereas Stoics make reason (wisdom) the supreme goal and subordinate pleasure to it, the Epicureans inverted this and made reason or virtue of merely instrumental or subordinate value to their goal of pleasure (or absence of pain, ataraxia).

Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe.  Too much pleasure is hurtful: but with virtue we need fear no excess of any kind, because moderation is contained in virtue herself.  That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing: besides what better guide can there be than reason [as opposed to pleasure] for beings endowed with a reasoning nature?  So if this combination pleases you, if you are willing to proceed to a happy life thus accompanied, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure follow and hang about the body like a shadow: it is the part of a mind incapable of great things to hand over virtue, the highest of all qualities, as a handmaid to pleasure.

So from fulsome praise of Epicurus, Seneca has very rapidly proceeded into scathing criticism, and ends up apparently selling the advantages of Stoicism over Epicureanism as a  guide to the best way of life.

In letter thirty-three, Seneca, as he has done several times already, stresses that Epicurus’ valuable sayings are common to poetry, plays, and philosophy in general.

Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, and so is history.  For this reason I would not have you think that these utterances belong to Epicurus.  They are common property and are emphatically our won.  They are, however, more noteworthy in Epicurus, because they appear at infrequent intervals and when you do not expect them, and because it is surprising that brave words should be spoken at any time by a man who made a practice of being effeminate.  For that is what most persons maintain.  In my opinion, Epicurus is really a brave man, even though he did wear long sleeves.  (Letters, 33)

Again, Epicurus’ character is praised, although his philosophy is being criticised.  This may have generally been considered courteous, although it also serves as a rhetorical strategy for softening the blow of criticisms made against Epicureanism.

For example, Seneca elsewhere rejects as absurd, in two letters, the teaching of Epicurus that the wise man even experiences pleasure while being tortured.  In letter sixty-six, his theme is to show that virtue, the supreme good, can flourish even in a frail, sickly, ugly, or impoverished body.  He opens by declaring the Stoic doctrine that virtue needs nothing else to set it off – it lacks no extrinsic goods, in other words.  Seneca compares this to what Epicurus said:

Epicurus also maintains that the wise man, though he is being burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out: “Tis pleasant, and concerns me not at all!”  (Letters, 66)

Here as elsewhere, Seneca notes that it is hard to believe, or implausible, that the Epicurean wise man finds it “pleasant to be roasted in this way”.

We find mentioned in the works of Epicurus two goods, of which his Supreme Good, or blessedness, is composed, namely, a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.  These goods, if they are complete, do not increase; for how can that which is complete increase?  The body is, let us suppose, free from pain; what increase can there be to this absence of pain?  The soul is composed and calm; what increase can there be to this tranquillity?  […] Whatever delights fall to his lot over and above these two things do not increase his Supreme Good; they merely season it, so to speak, and add spice to it.  For the absolute good of man’s nature is satisfied with peace in the body and peace in the soul.

Seneca goes on to say that Epicurus’ writings contain “a graded list of goods just like that of our own [Stoic] school”, by which he presumably means the Stoic list of virtues and also the hierarchy of things considered to be of secondary value (axia), which are not “good” in the strict sense.  (The Stoics sometimes use the word “good” loosely to describe “indifferent” things, which are merely “preferred”.)

For there are some things, he declares, which he prefers should fall to his lot, such as bodily rest free from all inconvenience, and relaxation of the soul as it takes delight in the contemplation of its own goods.  And there are other things which, though he would prefer that they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves, for example, the kind of resignation, in times of ill-health and serious suffering, to which I alluded a moment ago, and which Epicurus displayed on the last and most blessed day of his life.  For he tells uss that he had to endure excruciating agony from a diseased bladder and from an ulcerated stomach, so acute that it permitted no increase of pain;” and yet, “he says, “that day was none the less happy.”

Seneca appears to be alluding to the Epicurean definition of the Supreme Good, mentioned earlier by him, and defined as “a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.”  However, the “resignation, in times of ill-health” he mentions is the virtue of fortitude or endurance, which Epicurus reputedly valued only as a means to the end of maintaining pleasure and tranquillity.

Seneca began this letter by praising goods such as rational pleasure and tranquillity in agreement with Epicurus, he then argued at length contrary to Epicurus that virtue must be equal to other goods.  Now, however, he qualifies that position by concluding that reason or virtue maintained in the face of adversity is obviously more praiseworthy and admirable than the peaceful tranquillity of someone living a pleasant and contented life.

Allow me, excellent Lucilius, to utter a still bolder word: if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater.

He suggests that though all uses of reason and virtue are equal, greater “I should bestow greater praise on those goods that have stood trial and show courage, and have fought it out with fortune.”  He follows this with the celebrated example of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who burned his own hand to defy the Romans’ enemies.

Why should I not reckon this good among the primary goods, and deem it in so far greater than those other goods which are unattended by danger and have made no trial of fortune, as it is a rare thing to have overcome a foe with a hand lost than with a hand armed?

He even goes so far as now to say that he should desire adversity himself, as an opportunity to exercise virtue.  Somehow, what started off as praise of Epicureanism, by the end of the letter, has turned into a very different stance, where Mucius is held up as a Stoic exemplar that seems obviously at odds with the Epicurean ideal.  Once again, Epicurus is praised for his personal virtue of endurance in the face of physical pain, which is presented as being at odds with his own teaching that virtue is of merely instrumental value and the absence of physical pain is part of the Supreme Good.

In letter ninety-eight, Seneca criticises Epicurus more openly, although pairing that with a (fairly commonplace, once again) point of agreement:

Let us disagree with Epicurus on the one point, when he declares that there is no natural justice, and that crime should be avoided because one cannot escape the fear which results therefrom; let us agree with him on the other – that bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drive and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the guarantors of its own peace of mind. (Letters, 88)

The Stoics were appalled by the Epicurean doctrine that the main reason to avoid committing a crime or injustice is basically fear of being caught.  They typically point out that in many situations there is absolutely no risk of being found out, so Epicureanism provides no rationale for acting in the manner we’d normally consider ethical.  They agree that vice tends to lead to inner turmoil, but for the Stoics a good man refrains from immoral deeds because they are immoral, not just because they cause him anxiety.

In his other writings, Seneca is more openly critical of the Epicureans.  For example, Book IV of On Benefits, deals with the Socratic and Stoic contention that virtue is its own reward.  Seneca contrasts this with the Epicurean doctrine that virtue is merely of instrumental value, as a means of procuring pleasure or the absence of suffering (ataraxia):

In this part of the subject we oppose the Epicureans, an effeminate and dreamy sect who philosophise in their own paradise, amongst whom virtue is the handmaid of pleasures, obeys them, is subject to them, and regards them as superior to itself.  You say, “there is no pleasure without virtue.”  But wherefore is it superior to virtue?  Do you imagine that the matter in dispute between them is merely one of precedence?  Nay, it is virtue itself and its powers which are in question.  It cannot be virtue if it can follow; the place of virtue is first, she ought to lead, to command, to stand in the highest rank; you bid her look for a cue to follow.

This is really the fundamental Stoic criticism of Epicureanism.  It constitutes a complete difference of opinion of their respective definitions of the supreme goal of life.  Seneca continues:

“What,” asks our [Epicurean] opponent, “does that matter to you?  I also declare that happiness is impossible without virtue.  Without virtue I disapprove of and condemn the very pleasures which I pursue, and to which I have surrendered myself.  The only matter in dispute is this, whether virtue be the cause of the highest good, or whether it be itself the highest good.”  Do you suppose, though this be the only point in question, that it is a mere matter of precedence?  It is a confusion and obvious blindness to prefer the last to the first.  I am not angry at virtue being placed below pleasure, but at her being mixed up at all with pleasure, which she despises, whose enemy she is, and from which she separates herself as far as possible, being more at home with labour and sorrow, which are manly troubles, than with your womanish good things.

Compare this to Seneca’s slightly more opaque version of essentially the same argument, in Letter 66 above.  He continues to criticise his Epicurean “opponents” throughout On Benefits.  For example, later in Book IV, he presents criticisms of Epicurus’ negatively-defined goal of life, absence of suffering, as being akin to sleep (or death), which were first made many centuries earlier by the Cyrenaic school:

You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others. (On Benefits, 4.13)

Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Review of The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday (2014).

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) by Ryan Holiday is a book about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage.  It’s not exactly a book about Stoicism but it does contain a great many references to Stoicism, which reinforce the central message that every adversity is potentially an opportunity.

Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life.  The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.

Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:

The impediment to action advances action.  What stands in the way becomes the way.

This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, or identifying with the welfare of others.  In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition.  We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.

Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope.  In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles.  It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.

There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read.  It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity.  That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.

I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator.  I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day.  There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.

The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women.  From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.  Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course.  (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.)  However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.

That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful.  Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more.  That’s a good thing.  As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people.  Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire.  That’s why I think this is a book worth reading.  It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.

The Teachings of the Stoic School

A paraphrase from the account of early Stoic teachings in Diogenes Laertius.

This is a more or less direct paraphrase from some key passages in Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Zeno, our main source for the teachings of the early Greek Stoa.

Some philosophers claim that all animals naturally seek pleasure, and everything else is then sought for the sake of pleasure. However, the Stoics forwarded detailed arguments disproving this assumption. Instead they argued that pleasure is a by-product of the animal achieving the goals of its natural constitution, and ultimately the goal of self-preservation. Being healthy and surviving is the real natural goal of animals, feeling pleasure and avoiding pain are incidental to this. For example, when an animal satisfies its appetite it feels pleasure, as a side effect, but its true goal is to satisfy its appetite and not simply to feel the pleasure. Pleasure is therefore a side-effect of achieving our natural goals, not the goal itself. There are several reasons why the wise man fixes his attention on the goal itself rather than the side effect:

  1. The pleasurable feelings that typically follow as consequences of achieving our natural goals are unpredictable and not guaranteed because they are not under our direct control.
  2. There is often a delay before the consequences follow, and in some situations, such as facing death in battle, there may never be an opportunity to enjoy pleasurable feelings as a reward of our actions.
  3. There may be other factors which intervene and prevent pleasurable feelings from attending the achievement of our natural goals from following. For example, when we’re extremely preoccupied with our actions, such as in the heat of battle, we may not have the leisure to notice or enjoy pleasurable feelings.
  4. There are, or appear to be, shortcuts to achieving pleasure that are unhealthy or unethical. For example, we may use drugs to achieve pleasure.
  5. The Stoics liked to give examples of animals enduring pain and foregoing pleasure for the sake of self-preservation, or even the preservation of their mates or offspring. For instance, a bull may endure the pain of injury and threat of death, attacking a lion in defence of his herd.

Our feelings can often be our best guide. However, that’s not always true, and in many crucial situations, our feelings may be a bad guide, and wisdom requires acting “against” them temporarily. For instance, the feelings of a pathologically depressed, anxious, or angry individual are often a poor guide to them in life. Pleasure and pain, likewise, are often misleading guides to life.

With the development of reason, human beings acquire an obligation not just to survive like other animals (self-preservation), but to fulfil their potential to live rationally (wisdom). The Stoics forward several arguments to demonstrate this. For example, most people would instinctively prefer to save their mind and lose their body, rather than lose their mind and save their body, which shows that humans identify more with their minds than their bodies. Reason is inherently goal-directed: to think is to seek to grasp the truth. So we’re already committed to the goal of truth and the Stoics conclude we should therefore aim to become wise. Moreover, reason is capable of co-ordinating our behaviour by reflecting on our instincts and desires, and responding to them. To put it crudely, nature has made reason our highest or master faculty, in charge of our behaviour. Our supreme goal is therefore to preserve reason and fulfil its potential, which means to become wise. The goal of life is therefore the art of living wisely.

Zeno was the first (in On the Nature of Man) to call as the goal of life: “life in agreement with nature”. This is completely synonymous with living a virtuous life because our nature is rational, and to fulfil it is to become wise, wisdom being the essence of virtue. The virtues are all forms of practical wisdom, applied to different aspects of life. For example, justice is wisdom applied to social relations, courage is wisdom applied to things hard to endure, and self-discipline is wisdom applied to things we tend to crave. The other Stoics followed Zeno’s definition. Chrysippus said that living wisely or virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with our experience of the course of nature, or external events, because our individual nature is part of the Nature of the whole universe. By living wisely, we adapt to our experience of external events, even seeming adversity, our life goes smoothly, and we are no longer alienated but become at one with Nature as a whole.

This is why the goal of life may be defined as living in accord with nature, both our own human nature as well as that of the universe as a whole. This is what is meant by the virtue of the fulfilled (eudaimon) man and his smooth flow of life, when all actions promote the harmony of his inner self with the will of the universe. Chrysippus therefore said virtue is a harmonious disposition of our character, virtue is an end-in-itself and not sought out of hope or fear or any external motive. Moreover, fulfilment (eudaimonia) consists purely in virtue because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious, and therefore fulfilled. So how do human beings, rational beings, end up going wrong and forsaking the natural goal of wisdom? We are drawn into error because of the natural deceptiveness of external events, such as the sway that pleasurable and painful impressions have over us, or sometimes due to the influence of individual people, and society in general. But the starting point of our nature is completely sound and reason has everything it needs to guide us as long as we are not led astray by investing too much value in external things and other people’s opinions.

The original and more-general meaning of virtue (arete) is the perfection of anything whatsoever, such as the beauty of a statue or the speed of a horse. The goal of life for Stoics is to achieve the virtues of the mind, or of our character, such as wisdom and justice. However, the virtues (or strengths, if you prefer) of our body, such as physical strength and health, are sought as being of secondary and relative value. The physical virtue of health will tend to be a consequence of character virtues such as temperance or self-discipline. However, because physical virtues like health and strength merely supervene or follow on as consequences of mental virtues, they are also sometimes found even in bad men. Bad men sometimes become good, they observe, which suggests virtue can be learned. The Stoics disagreed with one another about how many virtues they were and how best to divide them. Some divided virtues into logical, physical and ethical, others said that practical wisdom is the only real virtue. The cardinal virtues are traditionally: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. These are broad categories consisting of many subordinate virtues, though. Wisdom is defined as “the knowledge of things good and bad and of what is neither good nor bad”, i.e., the indifferent things.

The good is what is beneficial, or healthy, i.e., what is “good for us”. Only virtue and vice can truly help or harm us, in terms of our character. The Stoics mainly call virtue “good”, but speaking more loosely they also refer to specific virtuous actions themselves as good and the people doing them as being good men. They also define the good as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational.” This mainly corresponds to virtue, but some Stoics also refer to the healthy feelings (eupatheiai) that supervene on virtue such as joy and gladness, etc., as good, and as part of human fulfilment (eudaimonia).

We share natural preconceptions (intuitions) that tell us, on reflection, the nature of the good, which is synonymous with many different qualities. Among these, foremost are the sense in which what is good for a rational being, a human being, is also what is beneficial (or healthy, good for us), and what is praiseworthy (or honourable, good for society). For Stoics, these perfectly coincide. The good is also synonymous with what is truly beautiful in human beings, i.e., in terms of our true nature as rational beings to have a beautiful character is to be virtuous.

The good things are virtues such as wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, and their subordinates. The bad things are the vices opposed to these: folly, injustice, cowardice and intemperance, etc. Neutral things fall between the categories of good and bad and are called “indifferent” with regard to the good life, although some are naturally preferred above others. The main examples of the indifferent things are therefore: life and death, health and disease, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, wealth and poverty, good reputation and bad reputation, being born into a good family and being born into a bad family, etc. Chrysippus and others class life, health, and pleasure, etc., as morally indifferent but nevertheless “preferred”. They argue that something cannot be intrinsically good if it can be put to good or bad use, but wealth and health, etc., can be used for good or bad ends, so are not good in themselves but merely indifferent. Likewise, that which is disgraceful cannot be intrinsically good, but some pleasures are disgraceful, so pleasure cannot be good in itself.

The Stoics use the word “indifferent” in a technical sense to mean things that do not contribute either to fulfilment (eudaimonia) or its opposite, they also speak of these things having selective “value”, but not as truly good or bad. It is possible for humans to be fulfilled without having health, wealth, or reputation, although, if they are used well or badly, such use of them tends to promote either fulfilment or misery. It’s therefore our use of “indifferent” things that’s most important, rather than the things themselves. The wise man uses all things well; the fool uses all things badly. Of the “indifferent” things, therefore, some are to be preferred by the wise man, some to be rejected, and other are indifferent in the complete sense. The things of value that are to be preferred they define as those which contribute directly, and those which contribute indirectly to living harmoniously and in accord with to nature. They therefore mean that the “value” of “preferred” indifferents may be due, for example, to “any assistance brought by wealth or health towards living a natural life”. Preferred things amongst mental qualities include natural ability and the like. Among physical qualities we naturally “prefer” life, health, strength, good functioning of organs, physical beauty, etc. In the sphere of external things the “preferred” things include wealth, fame, noble birth, etc. Qualities of character such as natural ability are preferred for their own sake, because they are in accord with our rational nature, whereas physical and external things are preferred merely as means to the end of achieving what is good in our mind or character.

The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Shirt vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

Antisthenes and Stoicism

Short article summarising some things we know about the life and thought of the philosopher Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ closest companions and an important precursor of Stoicism.

AntisthenesSome ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.  This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.

See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.

Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.

Antisthenes’ Life

We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood.  He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle.  Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.

At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style.  He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age.  Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead.  He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates.  Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles.  Socrates himself was a decorated war hero.  So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.

Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates.  He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle.  Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato.  Plato was about the same age as Xenophon.  Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato was absent due to illness and Xenophon was on a military service.  Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.

Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus.  For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city.  (Diogenes Laertius)

According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies.  Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato.  Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse.  It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!”  For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled.  He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character.  For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak.  (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)

Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity.  According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”

It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle.  However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent.  He only accepted a handful.

To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)

He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.

The Cynics

One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.

Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition.  Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes.  However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met.  Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy.  So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic.   Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:

From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of  indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.

Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common.  In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:

They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.

Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.

When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”

He walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him.  Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.

However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:

It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)

AntisthenesPhilosophy

Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”.  Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad.  He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”.  The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad.  He also advocated a simple life.  By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment.  He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.

He practised indifference to the opinion of others.  When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”.  Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36).  He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones.  (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”)  Likewise, that “it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.”  When someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.)  This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.

Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:

  • That virtue can be taught.
  • That only the virtuous are noble.
  • That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
  • That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
  • That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
  • That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
  • That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
  • That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
  • That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.

If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points.  It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules.  By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.

Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.”  This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.

Writings

Antisthenes was a very prolific writer.  In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things.  His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style.  However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s.  Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts.  In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.

These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts.  The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good.  Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes.  Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.

He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general.  He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover.  One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear.  His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.

What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice?  A familiar sight enough.  So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’  Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.  (Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”  In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone.  (Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.”  But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.  However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case.  Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where.  For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught.  (Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?”  But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.