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)


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.


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 ŌÜőĪőĹŌĄőĪŌÉőĮőĪ őĶŠľ∂ őļőĪŠĹ∂ őŅŠĹź ŌÄő¨őĹŌĄŌČŌā ŌĄŠĹł ŌÜőĪőĻőĹŌĆőľőĶőĹőŅőĹ. ¬†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 ŠľĒőīőŅőĺőĶőĹ őĪŠĹźŌĄŠŅ∑ 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.

“The cosmos = change; life = opinion.”

But among the principles ready to your hand, upon which you shall pore, let there be these two. ¬†One, that objective things do not lay hold of the soul, but stand quiescent without; while disturbances are but the outcome of that opinion which is within us. ¬†A second, that all this visible world changes in a moment, and will be no more; and continually think how many things you have already witnessed changing. ¬†“The cosmos is change; life is opinion.” (Meditations, 4.3)

The Greek says very simply: ho kosmos, alloiosis. ho bios, hupolepsis. ¬†Literally: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion.” ¬†This was obviously meant to be memorized, like slogan or mnemonic. ¬†Marcus means that the external world is constantly changing and nothing lasts forever; and that the quality of our lives is determined by our judgments, mainly those about what is good or bad in life.

The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

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. ¬†Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.  (Heroism)

Likewise, 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.” ¬†Elsewhere he reiterates this:

And virtue in itself they hold to be worthy of choice for its own sake. At all events we are ashamed of bad conduct as if we knew that nothing is really good but the morally beautiful. (Diogenes Laertius)

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 ‚ÄĒ the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 by 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.” ¬†If we’re virtuous for the sake of some other word then, arguably, that’s not really virtue at all. ¬†It’s essential to the concept of virtue that it’s an end in itself, rather than merely a means to an end, or what’s known as an “instrumental” good. ¬†By definition, something that’s merely instrumentally good, isn’t really good at all, in itself, it’s morally indifferent. ¬†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)

Marcus Aurelius also frequently returns to this theme.

These are the properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, analyses itself, and makes itself such as it chooses; the fruit which it bears itself enjoys- for the fruits of plants and that in animals which corresponds to fruits others enjoy- it obtains its own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as in a dance and in a play and in such like things, where the whole action is incomplete, if anything cuts it short; but in every part and wherever it may be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, I have what is my own. (Meditations, 11.1)

Virtues like justice, are their own reward, and we need ask for nothing further because in doing them we have fulfilled our nature, and are flourishing.

Have I done something for the common welfare? Well then I have had my reward. Let this always be present to thy mind, and never stop doing such good. (11.4)

Likewise, the Stoics claim that virtue is synonymous with what is beneficial, or rewarding in itself.

No man is tired of receiving what is beneficial. But it is beneficial to act according to nature. Do not then be tired of receiving what is beneficial by doing it to others. (7.74)

Frank McLynn, biographer of Marcus Aurelius, writes:

To act morally brings joy, which is a key motif in Marcus‚Äôs 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 ‚Äėcity of the world‚Äô. 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.