Making Big Decisions

Some thoughts about advice on making major life decisions.

The Pythagorean UpsilonA famous physicist once said that the opposite of every profound truth is very often another equally “profound” truth. I think that’s usually the case with proverbs and folk wisdom: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, they say; but they also say “He who hesitates is lost.” Often folk wisdom is so vague it’s bound to be contradictory.

When you’re thinking about your career, it seems to me that the people giving sage advice fall into two camps. The first group say that the most important thing in life is to be able to adapt to circumstances, spot opportunities when they arise, and seize them with both hands. The second group say that the most important thing in life is to have a sense of personal identity, a fundamental goal in life, to make yourself totally committed to fulfilling your dream or destiny, and to remain unswayed by external events. Now, on the face of it, those both sound like reasonable pieces of advice. However, on the face of it, they also appear at odds with each other: we should be both flexible and inflexible about our goals.

I’ve heard or read this advice many times. Usually a person will go to one extreme or the other, and they always sound very wise, even when they’re saying contradictory things! So what’s the alternative? Now, I should say that I’m generally no fan of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said that the best course of action is often the middle way (via media) between two extremes. I remember one of my old philosophy professors at Aberdeen telling me that was interesting but “not very helpful”. “If I was holding a dinner party,” he said, “and wanted to know how much wine to buy, Aristotle’s advice would be ‘don’t buy too much but don’t buy too little either; get an amount somewhere in-between’.” That’s common sense, but unsatisfactory and vague.

Nevertheless, the best advice I can offer here, if only to remedy the bad advice that comes from clinging too much to one extreme, is that we should be neither too rigid nor too flexible but somewhere in-between when it comes to our goals in life. I believe that both the “profound truths” I mentioned at the start are true, in their own way. If you want to have a good life, you should pay attention when opportunity comes knocking at your door and be ready to change your plans, and adapt to your changing fortune, but not so much that it derails pursuit of your fundamental goal. Likewise, it’s wise to have a definite goal in life and remain passionately focused on it, but not so intransigently that you become a numbskull, and overlook compromises that might contribute to your longer-term happiness and wellbeing. You need to be on the lookout for opportunities and seize them when they arise, but only ones that are ultimately consistent with your fundamental vision, your destiny in life. You’re also going to have to suck it up sometimes and allow some incredibly tempting good fortune to pass you by, if clinging onto it would sweep you too far off course. So in a sense, I think wisdom consists in doing both of these things in harmony, and folly in doing neither of them, or in doing one of them too much.

People who appear merely wise cling to one extreme but in their case it’s only chance that determines whether that will turn out well or badly for them. One man sticks rigidly to his goal, ignores everything else, and becomes a huge success by following this rule of life, another does the same thing but ruins himself by being too rigid. One man watches fate like a hawk, pounces on good fortune when it appears, and flourishes as a result, another following the same principle ends up all over the place, and living a life completely out of kilter with his true values. Be cautious when listening to the advice of fortunate people because often they follow rigid philosophies of life, which only worked out for them by chance. If we only had to do one simple thing, life would be easy. What we often have to do is walk a tightrope, maintaining a delicate balance along the way. That’s hard work, although it’s also, in a sense, just one task. It’s a composite task, though, and though certain principles and ideas can guide us, many difficult decisions, requiring sound judgement, have to be made. That’s why nobody can tell you how much wine to buy. They can remind you not to get too much, nor too little, but you’re the only person who knows enough about your meal, and your guests, to decide what the right amount is. When you’re thinking about your future, don’t be led too much by events, and don’t stick too rigidly to your original goals. More specifically: keep comparing these two things to each other, weigh up each event carefully against the supreme criterion of your fundamental goal in life and ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my long-term happiness and well being, or not?”

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

Review of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic Cover

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although book designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.

Virtue is its own Reward

The Stoic doctrine that “virtue is its own reward”.

the-only-reward-of-virtue-is-virtue-the-only-way-to-have-a-friend-is-to-be-oneThe Stoics recognise an important place for feelings such as joy and tranquillity in their philosophical system, and they very frequently refer to them.  However, from the writings of the earliest Stoics onward these “good feelings” (eupatheiai) appear to have been regarded as merely “supervening” upon virtue, i.e., side-effects of the good rather than intrinsically good themselves (Lives and Opinions, 7.94).  The principle that “virtue is its own reward” (virtus ipsa pretium sui) was fundamental to Stoic Ethics.  Many subsequent authors have been inspired by this doctrine.  Spinoza and Kant held similar views to the Stoics, in this regard.  For example, according to Diogenes Laertius, Cleanthes (or possibly Chrysippus) said that “Virtue is a harmonious disposition, worthy of being chosen for its own sake and not from hope or fear or any external reward.”

Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

P.A. Brunt wrote in his essay on Late Stoic Moralists:

Strictly indeed both spiritual calm and joy do not constitute the summum bonum [the supreme good], which is virtue; they are ‘consequential on and not perfective of it’. But this is a scholastic caveat; it is clear that Seneca conceived of the happy life as necessarily comprising them.

However, Seneca does explain several reasons why he thinks this distinction is of practical importance.

The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote:

Unlike Epicurean pleasure, Stoic joy is not the motive and the end of moral action: rather, virtue is its own reward.  Virtue seeks nothing above and beyond itself; instead, for the Stoics, joy, like Aristotelian pleasure, comes along as an extra surplus in addition to action in conformity with nature, “like beauty for those in the flower of youth”. (The Inner Citadel, p. 240)

He quotes Seneca who dedicates one section of On the Happy Life to this issue, where he addresses it very clearly:

But, in the first place, even though virtue is sure to bestow pleasure, it is not for this reason that virtue is sought; for it is not this, but something more than this that she bestows, nor does she labor for this, but her labor, while directed toward something else, achieves this also.  As in a plowed field, which has been broken up for corn, some flowers will spring up here and there, yet it was not for these poor little plants, although they may please the eye, that so much toil was expended — the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded — just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.

The highest good lies in the very choice of it, and the very attitude of a mind made perfect, and when the mind has completed its course and fortified itself within its own bounds, the highest good has now been perfected, and nothing further is desired; for there can no more be anything outside of the whole than there can be some point beyond the end.

Therefore you blunder when you ask what it is that makes me seek virtue; you are looking for something beyond the supreme. Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? When I say to you, “The highest good is the inflexibility of an unyielding mind, its foresight, its sublimity, its soundness, its freedom, its harmony, its beauty, do you require of me something still greater to which these blessings may be ascribed? (On the Happy Life, 9)

Likewise, in one of his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca argues that although virtue is the only true good, we also refer to the consequences of virtue as good in a looser sense, insofar as they derive from it.  This includes the healthy expansion of the soul that tends to follow wisdom and virtue.  (The Stoics interpret healthy and unhealthy emotions, in part, as expansions and contractions of the soul.)  “Sometimes as a result of noble conduct,” he writes, “one wins great joy even a short and very fleeting space of time”.  We can glimpse Stoic joy in moments of action because it is a “delight” to contemplate our own virtue.

But that man also who is deprived of this joy, the joy which is afforded by the contemplation of some last noble effort, will leap to his death without a moment’s hesitation, content to act rightly and dutifully. (Letter 76)

Virtue is the only real motive for the Stoic’s actions.  Someone who posits the joyful feelings, which supervene on virtue, as his goal in life would be morally compromised in certain difficult situations.  He would hesitate in the face of danger, because pleasant feelings are often inaccessible in the heat of battle, and he may die before ever reaping these fruits of virtue.  The Stoic does not wait for a warm glow to descend on him before taking action because his only goal is virtuous action, and the feelings which may (or may not) follow are merely an added bonus, or side-effect – they’re irrelevant to his motivation.

Likewise, in On Benefits, Seneca writes:

What can be more base than for a man to consider what it costs him to be a good man, when virtue neither allures byh gain nor deters by loss […] You will gain the doing of it – the deed itself is your gain.    Nothing beyond this is promised.  If any advantage chance to accrue to you, count it as something extra.  The reward of honourable dealings lies in themselves. (On Benefits, Book IV)

Later he says: “If you wish for anything beyond these virtues, you do not wish for the virtues themselves.”  Again, “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honour is pursued for no reason except because it is honour.”  He opens On Clemency by stating “the true enjoyment of good deeds consists in the performance of them, and virtues have no adequate reward beyond themselves”.

Hence, Epictetus asks his students “Do you seek a reward for a good man greater than doing what is good and just?” (Discourses, 3.24).  And elsewhere he puts the concept that “virtue is its own reward” forward very strongly indeed:

So, you say, what good do I get [from virtue]? But what more good do you want than this? Instead of being a shameless man you will become a dignified man, instead of chaotic you will become organized, from being untrustworthy you will become trustworthy, instead of being out of control you will become sane. If you want anything more than this, keep on doing what you are already doing: not even a God can now help you. (Discourses, 4.9)

According to Diogenes Laertius, Chrysippus had long ago said that “Virtue is a harmonious disposition, worth choosing for its own sake and not from hope or fear or any external motive.”   In other words, virtue is an end-in-itself and not to be treated as a means-to-the-end of some other reward external to it.

Frank McLynn, biographer of Marcus Aurelius, writes:

To act morally brings joy, which is a key motif in Marcus’s writings, and denotes the emotion we feel when we are truly fulfilling the function for which we were put on the Earth, and when we consent to the reality of Providence, pantheism and the ‘city of the world’. Here we see that virtue is truly its own reward, for joy is not the end of moral action, as the Epicureans thought. The sage does not choose virtue because it causes pleasure, but it is a fact that, if chosen, virtue does cause pleasure. (McLynn, p. 235)

Now Available: Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

The Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available to read in advance.

Stoic Week HandbookThe Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available for you to read in advance, in order to prepare for Stoic Week, which begins on Monday 17th October.

You can now read the online (web) version of the handbook, at and complete the preliminary online forms.  The offline versions of the handbook, for use with e-readers, and printing, will not be available until Stoic Week begins on the 17th.

Official Press Release: Stoic Week 2016

Official press release for Stoic Week 2016 and Stoicon.

cropped-socrates-v1-1024x239International Stoic Week is an annual week-long series of free, online events aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy and guiding participants in the practice of applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.

This year, International Stoic Week is scheduled for October 17th-23rd, 2016, following the annual Stoicon Conference in New York City on October 15th. The theme will be Stoicism and Love. The organizing group, Stoicism Today, reports that participation in Stoic Week grew by 66% from 2014 to 2015. Record numbers are expected again this year, surpassing the 3,200 participants worldwide last year.

During Stoic Week, participants will have the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” by following the Stoic Week Handbook, which contains readings, audio, video, and optional group discussions – along with daily practical exercises that combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern psychology. The free Handbook is presented online with offline versions available in PDF, EPUB (mobile), and MBI (Kindle) formats.

Members of the Stoicism Today project (a collaborative group of philosophers, psychologists, and psychotherapists) are available to discuss Stoic philosophy, Stoic Week, and other related topics via interviews, lectures, and other appearances.

Participants are also encouraged to schedule their own Stoic Week events and share information with the Stoicism Today team for informing the wider Stoic community.

Follow Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

To support Stoic Week via donation, use their PayPal form.

Media Inquiries about Stoic Week should be directed to Donald Robertson, and inquiries about Stoicon to Massimo Pigliucci.

The Teachings of Zeno of Citium

The teachings of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, summarised and paraphrased by Henry Sedgwick.

Zeno Gem
Gem depicting Zeno of Citium, from British Museum.

Although Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, wrote many books, none of them survive today. However, there are many references to his views and some apparent quotes from his writings scattered throughout ancient secondary sources.

In his Life of Marcus Aurelius (1921), the American author Henry Dwight Sedgwick, attempted to summarise them as follows:

Ye shall not make any graven images,
Neither shall ye build temples to the Gods,
For nothing builded is worthy of the Gods;
The handiwork of artisans and carpenters
Is of little worth, neither is it sacred.

Ye shall not beautify the city,
Save with the righteousness of them that live therein.
Neither shall ye have courts of law.
Love is the god of amity and freedom,
Love is divine, he helpeth to keep the city safe,
He it is that prepareth concord.

Ye shall not live divided into cities and into townships,
Nor be kept asunder by contrary laws;
But ye shall hold all men as fellow citizens and fellow townsmen.
Ye shall have one law and one custom,
Like a flock, herded under one crook, that feedeth together.

The nature of the universe is twofold,
There is that which worketh and that which is wrought upon.
And that which is wrought upon
Is substance that hath neither shape nor form;
And that which worketh upon it
Is the word, and the word is God.
And God is everlasting
And permeateth all substance,
And thereby createth each several thing;
And from this substance proceed all created things.
And the universal whole is substance,
And that into which substance is divided is matter,
And the universal whole becometh neither greater nor less,
But each several thing becometh greater or less;
For the several parts do not remain the same always,
But they part asunder, and again they come together.

God is body, most pure,
And the beginning of all things,
And his providence pervadeth all that is.
God is ether, God is air,
God is spirit of ethereal fire;
He is diffused throughout creation
As honey through the honeycomb;
God goeth to and fro throughout all that is,
God is mind, God is soul, God is nature:
It is God that holdeth the universe together.

The artificer and disposer of the universe
Is the word, and the word is reason;
He is fate.
He is the determining cause of all things, He is Zeus.
In all things is the divine;
The law of nature is divine.
The world and the heavens are the substance of God,
And the divine power worketh in the stars,
And in the years, in the months and in the seasons.

Zeus, Hera and Vesta,
And all the gods and goddesses
Are not Gods, but names
Given to things that lack life and speech;
For Zeus is the sky, Hera the air,
Poseidon the sea, and Hephaestus fire.

Lo, the fountain of life is character.
And from it, in their order, flow forth our actions.
Behold, happiness is the smooth flow of life.
The fulfillment of a man’s life
Is to live in accord with nature;
So to live is to live in righteousness,
For nature leadeth to righteousness,
And the end of life is to live in accord with virtue.

Follow the Gods.
Man is born solely for righteousness,
For righteousness draweth to itself the souls of men
With no lure, no offerings from without,
But of its own splendor.
Virtue of itself is sufficient for happiness;
Righteousness is the sole and only good,
And nothing is evil save that which is vile and base.

Of things that are, some there are
Which are good and some which are evil,
And some which are neither good nor evil.
And the good are these: Wisdom, Sobriety, Justice and Fortitude.
And the evil are these: Folly, Intemperance, Injustice and Cowardice.
And things that are neither good nor evil are indifferent.
And things indifferent are these:
Life and death, good repute and ill repute,
Pain and pleasure, riches and poverty,
Sickness and health, and such like.

And of men there are two sorts,
The upright man and the wicked man;
And the upright man all his life
Will do the things that are right, But the ways of the wicked are evil.

The wise man is blessed, the wise man is rich;
Only the wise, however needy they be, are rich;
Only the wise, however ill-favored, are beautiful;
For the lineaments of the soul
Are more beautiful than those of the body.
All good men are friends one to another.

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.

(Cleomedes has provided his own edited version of these passages from Sedgwick on the Stoicism Subreddit.)

Sedgwick goes on to provide the following, additional maxims attributed to Zeno from the surviving fragments, etc.

The wise man will do all things well,
He will season his porridge wisely.

Give not thine ear unto that which is pleasant;
And take from the flatterer his freedom of speech.

Though ye are able to get sweets from your labors,
Yet ye take them from cookshops.

Sedgwick continues:

His sayings in conversation had the same individuality and vigor: “Better to trip with the feet than the tongue.” “There is nothing we need so much as time.” And he often quoted the remark of a music teacher to a young flute-player who was blowing a great blast on his flute, “Greatness does not make a thing excellent, but excellence makes a thing great.” And when some spendthrifts were excusing themselves, saying that they spent out of a large property, he answered, “So you agree with the cook who put too much salt in his dish, and said he had a great quantity left.” He defined, in accord with Aristotle, a friend as “a second self,” and asserted that a voice should be “the flower of beauty.”

Completing SMRT 2014

SMRT 2016 has now finished – thanks for taking part!

If you haven’t already done so, please read the final Postscript section.  We’d also be very grateful if you just took a minute to complete our (very) brief course evaluation form online.  (Many thanks to those of you who have already submitted your feedback!)

Course Evaluation Form

Some donations have already been received from participants via the PayPal button that’s been added to the site. We’re extremely grateful for even the smallest donations because they help to fund continual development of the site and cover ongoing expenses like our web-hosting costs. You can contribute an amount of your own choosing right now by using this PayPal link.  Thanks for your support!

Some quick facts and figures: Over 2,500 people registered to take part in SMRT 2016.  Over 930 comments were posted in the discussion areas by participants during the course.  Over 970 people submitted SABS questionnaire forms, allowing us to analyse their data.  75% of participants in this course were male, which is higher than some of our previous online courses.

As always, if you need any help, please feel free to contact me.


Donald Robertson
Course Facilitator