New Elearning Site for Stoicism

Quick announcement explaining some changes to the site, and some news about elearning on Stoicism.

Hi everyone,

You may notice some slight changes over the next few weeks. ¬†I’ve migrated all users from this site to a Teachable elearning site, which is on the subdomain:

That performs much better, is more secure, and looks much nicer than our old WordPress elearning.  If you go there now, you should be able to log in.  Otherwise, just create a new account.  Please feel free to email me if you need any help.

You’ll find some new courses appearing there. ¬†It’s already hosting our Crash Course in Stoicism, which over 1,200 people have already done. ¬†It’s a free mini-course that is designed to take under ten minutes. ¬†Also the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course for 2017, in which a whopping 1,850 people are taking part this year. Soon the new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course will be open for enrolment.

Those of you who were following have now been migrated over to followers of this site, which is replacing the old one. ¬†That domain is in the process of being diverted here. ¬†Just in case you wonder what’s going on.

If you’re not already following this blog, you can do so by submitting your email below, and WordPress will notify you each time a new article is added:

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Anyway, as always, thanks for your support!


Donald Robertson

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Forthcoming course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.

I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.

I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication. ¬†It’s been a labour of love. ¬†For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.

You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:

I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far. ¬†This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though. ¬†I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.

If you want to receive updates on the course and be notified when it’s available just enter your details below:

I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.

I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later. ¬†If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. ¬†

Please make sure you add your email address to the list above, though, so that you don’t miss out on the announcements. ¬†Thanks once again for your support!

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training 2017

Just a quick note to say that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training SMRT will be starting around the middle of July, and you can enrol in advance now. ¬†It’s completely free and thousands of people have done it since 2014. ¬†Click the link below to visit the site. ¬†More details to follow shortly…

Stoic Arguments Against Hedonism

Some notes on hedonism and the ancient criticisms made of it by Stoics and others.

AristippusNB: This is a draft. ¬†I’ll add more detail over time and in response to comments.

Hellenistic schools of philosophy were often distinguished from each other in terms of their definition of the supreme good.  The Stoics defined the goal of life as the attainment of wisdom and virtue.  They frequently contrasted this with the common notion that pleasure (hedone) is the most important thing in life.  Indeed, Chrysippus wrote one book entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and another on Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, i.e., pleasure is not intrinsically good at all let alone the supreme goal of life.

Hedonistic philosophies of life can actually take different forms.

  1. The naive assumption that pleasure, and avoidance of pain, is the most important thing in life, which is commonly taken for granted by non-philosophers.
  2. The Cyrenaic philosophy, founded in the early 4th century BC, which proposed an ethical system based on the premise that the goal of life is to experience bodily pleasure in the present moment.
  3. The Epicurean philosophy, founded in the late 4th century BC, which developed a more subtle ethical system, also claiming that pleasure is the goal of life, but distinguishing between different types of pleasure and placing most value on the absence of emotional suffering (ataraxia).

However, the writings of Epicurus and his followers are notoriously ambiguous in this regard and different people tend to interpret his meaning in different ways. ¬†Cicero, for example, insists that Epicureanism endorses the pursuit both of ataraxia and of bodily pleasures of the Cyrenaic kind, citing Epicurus’ own¬†writings in support of this interpretation.

The Stoics mainly focused their criticisms on naive hedonism, which they believed was a common vice. ¬†However, they also frequently attacked the more philosophical doctrines of their rivals, the Epicurean school. ¬†You can read detailed accounts of the various Stoic criticisms of Epicureanism in Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero’s De Finibus.

This article will explore the basic criticisms of hedonism found in the Stoic literature. ¬†The Stoics typically attacked hedonism using the Socratic method, by exposing contradictions in their opponent’s position through questioning. ¬†For example, there are often¬†apparent¬†conflicts between¬†the claim that pleasure is the goal of life and some of their actions, or other¬†moral assumptions held by them.

Socrates was the original source for criticisms of hedonism found in the Cynic-Stoic¬†tradition. ¬†His student Antisthenes reputedly said that pleasure is bad, and that he would rather go insane than experience pleasure. ¬†However, the Stoics adopted a more moderate position, arguing that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, with regard to the good life. ¬†It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that unlike Antisthenes, the Stoics were not saying that pleasure is bad. ¬†However, they did believe that hedonism, the assumption that “pleasure is (intrinsically) good”, was a¬† vice, and the basis of an irrational passion.

1. Self-Defeating

One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating. ¬†There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy. ¬†We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance” is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety. ¬†The more¬†strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will try to suppress or avoid them. ¬†This has been repeatedly shown to backfire in psychological studies, e.g., because when we judge something¬†to be extremely bad we automatically tend to focus more attention on it. ¬†In the case of subjective experiences, such as feelings, this backfires because it¬†actually tends to evoke and amplifies the very thing we’re trying to avoid. ¬†One study specifically found that people who strongly endorse the belief “anxiety is bad” are more predisposed to developing mental health problems in the future. ¬†That’s strikingly similar to the Epicurean doctrine that pain (which would include anxiety) is bad – it’s virtually¬†direct evidence that holding that value judgement tends to be psychologically¬†harmful. ¬†It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly¬†in conflict with modern psychological research in general.

The Cynics, in particular, were known for arguing that the best way to overcome pain and suffering is, paradoxically, by “voluntary hardship“, or training ourselves to¬†accept unpleasant feelings. ¬†They use a variety of analogies to express this notion. ¬†Someone being chased by wild dogs who tries to run in panic will probably¬†be taken down and savaged by them but if he is¬†brave enough to turn and face them with confidence, they will often back away. ¬†Someone who tentatively grabs a snake by the tail or the middle will get bitten, but someone who firmly grasps it behind the head will be safer. ¬†Someone who hesitantly tries to stamp out a blazing fire may be more likely to get burned than someone who tramples it confidently. ¬†A boxer who keeps backing down and nervously tries to protect himself too¬†fearfully is more likely to be overwhelmed than one who faces his opponent unafraid of taking blows. ¬†Today it’s become a cliche to speak of “grasping the nettle” because¬†someone who grasps a nettle quickly and firmly is less likely to be stung than someone who does it hesitantly.

All of these analogies refer to the paradox of acceptance, which has become a staple of modern chronic pain management and increasingly central to modern behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression. ¬†The more we try to control or suppress unpleasant feelings, the worse they tend to get over the long term. ¬†Whereas the more we can train ourselves to relax into and actively accept unpleasant feelings, as indifferent, the more they tend to naturally abate, to some extent, and the fewer¬†secondary problems are associated with experiencing them. ¬†That presupposes the attitude that painful or unpleasant feelings are totally “indifferent” (Stoicism) as opposed to the view that they are bad (hedonism).


So much for judging unpleasant feelings too¬†negatively (“pain is bad”). ¬† ¬†What about judging pleasant feelings too positively (“pleasure is good”)? ¬†There’s less research on the negative effect of placing too much value on ¬†positive subjective feelings. ¬†However, many philosophers and psychologists in the past have observed that trying too hard to feel happy is often a surefire way to make life miserable. ¬†Feelings of pleasure and happiness seem to occur most reliably, over the long-term, when we do healthy and fulfilling things in life, without being too directly preoccupied with our feelings. ¬†For example, it’s long been established that introspection is associated with anxiety and depression. ¬†People who are happy and fulfilled tend to be more focused on outward things, on other people, on activity, rather than morbidly preoccupied with their own inner world. ¬†Feelings of happiness are best achieved by an indirect approach, that allows them to arise as a byproduct of healthy and constructive activity, rather than by trying to exert¬†too much direct control over our inner thoughts and feelings. ¬†However, as modern behaviour therapists have consistently noted, when we place too much value on feelings of pleasure and happiness, it’s difficult not to end up being preoccupied with exerting internal control in this way because our attention automatically tends to follow our value judgments in this way. ¬†Placing more value on the character of our actions (Stoicism), and focusing attention on them, is more likely to generate positive feelings, ironically, than placing supreme value on the¬†feelings themselves.

2. Not Natural

Some ancient hedonists, starting with the Cyrenaics, tried to argue that it is natural for animals, and human infants, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Those are the instincts adult humans inherit, they argued, and we should develop an ethic on that basis.  It tended to be assumed by ancient philosophers that what is natural, or instinctive, is also good and healthy.

However, the Stoics directly attacked this claim. ¬†They argued that animals frequently expose themselves voluntarily to pain or discomfort, and also forego pleasure, under certain circumstances. ¬†That appears to prove that the natural instincts, even¬†of certain species of animals, do not posit pleasure as the supreme goal of life. ¬†For example, many animals will instinctively¬†endure danger and painful injury for the sake of protecting their own offspring from attack. ¬†The Stoics like to refer to the example of a bull who will risk being clawed and bitten by a lion while defending the weaker members of his herd, an example probably drawn from Zeno’s Republic. ¬†Incidentally, I think it’s irrelevant here¬†to question the Stoics’ claims about specific examples of animal behaviour, what matters is that their general point is correct: many animals will definitely risk death or injury to protect their offspring. ¬†(In fact, certain species of cattle¬†are quite skilled at¬†taking down a lion just as they described.)

Sometimes people assume that modern behavioural psychology endorses this assumption about animals and humans being primarily motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, this is not the case.  B.F. Skinner the leading pioneer of American behavioural analysis stressed that sensations of pain and pleasure are merely common side-effects of reinforcement.

3. Contradicts Common Moral Intuitions

The ancient philosophers provide many examples of situations in which seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the supreme good would potentially lead us to act in ways that conflict with common moral intuitions, about what is right and wrong. ¬†Some hedonists argue that it’s the fear of punishment or being reprimanded that ensures that they will not break the law, harm others, etc. ¬†However, it turns out that’s a very weak argument because it’s easy to think of situations in which it becomes problematic.

For example, Cicero gives the example of someone who notices that an enemy or rival is about to sit on a woodpile in which¬†a poisonous snake is concealed. ¬†The observer could simply say nothing and nobody would know that he’d allowed his rival to do something dangerous, and possibly die as a result. ¬†With no risk of being caught or¬†punished, arguably the hedonist has no reason to act in a way we’d normally consider ethical.

Hedonists will tend to respond by arguing that their moral¬†conscience would cause them pain even if they were to harm others, etc., under cover of darkness, without any risk of being caught. ¬†However, that’s also a weak argument. ¬†Feelings of conscience are variable and it’s possible to suppress them, e.g., by using certain drugs or suppressing feelings of guilt. ¬†Moreover, it’s well-established that many individuals simply do not experience the painful sting of conscience to a significant degree, e.g., people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, or even sociopaths. ¬†So feelings of conscience are not a reliable guide to action in general, and in some cases they’re negligible or even completely absent.

As always, it may be that some people would accept the conclusion that as hedonists they can justify acting in ways most people would consider unethical, as long as there’s no risk of being caught and their conscience does not disturb them. ¬†However, for the majority of people this will create a conflict with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.

4. Not Up to Us

Sensations like pain and pleasure are not under our direct control. ¬†The most that we could do is will certain actions that¬†appear likely to have pleasurable consequences. ¬†The Stoics believe, however, that this is contradictory. ¬†To judge something supremely “good”, good in the strong sense, is to desire to bring it about, and to judge something strongly “bad” is to desire to avoid it. ¬†However, it’s arguably irrational to strongly desire something that it is not within our power to attain. ¬†Strictly, speaking we can only wish to do what it is within our power to do, without endorsing¬†two mutually¬†incompatible¬†opinions. ¬†This¬†line of reasoning, that good =¬†desirable =¬†attainable, appears similar to Kant’s principle that “Ought implies¬†can.” ¬†The majority of us certainly do typically desire many things that are unattainable in life, but the Stoics argue that this is contradictory and therefore irrational.

The Stoics argue that it’s more consistent and rational for adult humans¬†to transfer supreme value to our own ability to make value judgments, i.e., reason. ¬†(The Stoics call this our “ruling¬†faculty” or hegemonikon.) ¬† To reason well is to become wise, so moral wisdom (virtue) itself becomes the supreme good.

5. Double-Standard

The Stoics also employed what cognitive therapists today call the “double standards” strategy to highlight contradictions in their interlocutors’ position. ¬†They ask us to consider what qualities we most admire in others and compare those to the values we set for our own life and actions. ¬†The majority of people don’t tend to praise or admire others who make pleasure their supreme goal in life. ¬†In fact, we actually praise people more when they act virtuously in the face of pain and suffering. ¬†However, it is¬†arguably hypocritical to¬†value different qualities in other people than we aspire to for ourselves. ¬†This can be seen as yet another form of self-contradiction, that comes to light through¬†careful reflection on our values.

Of course, as always, some people may accept this but deny that it’s problematic. ¬†I’ve occasionally met people who say they feel strongly that it makes sense for them to want other people to have different values from their own. ¬†Nevertheless, most people are sensitive to the notion that this is a form of¬†hypocrisy and that tends to be something that provokes the to reconsider their position. ¬†Another way of framing this criticism, employed by the Stoics, is to ask whether the hedonist would wish to live in a society of hedonists, to be surrounded by a community of other people whose supreme goal in life is to maximize their own pleasure. ¬†Many people find this, at first glance, an appealing goal for themselves but¬†they often feel¬†uncomfortable about the idea that other people might hold those values because, e.g., they notice that their own life, and rights, would potentially be of questionable value in the eyes of other hedonists. ¬†For instance, it’s often been pointed out that hedonists, especially in the ancient world, might plausibly conclude that they best way to maximize their own pleasure would be to own slaves. ¬†However, if you happened to be one of those unfortunate enough to be enslaved you might start to wish that your owners¬†had placed more value on¬†human dignity and freedom than on their own experience of pleasure and freedom from pain. ¬†The Stoics thought it was contradictory and irrational, though, for someone to endorse a¬†set of values¬†for themselves that they would potentially find objectionable if followed by other people.

Related to this¬†are¬†discussions of the hedonist view of friendship, which ¬†appear to reduce¬†all friendships to “fairweather” ones,¬†as Seneca puts it. ¬†The Stoics and other Socratics argue that we must treat our friends and loved ones as ends in themselves, in some sense, otherwise that falls short of anything we could call authentic friendship. ¬†Ancient¬†hedonists, by contrast, typically argued that friendship was a kind of social contract in which both parties show affection for each other only insofar as they believe its in their interest to do so, because it offers more opportunity for pleasure, or protection from pain. ¬†However, that obviously makes friendship, or love for ones partner or children, problematic when it becomes a source of pain or distress. ¬†A hedonist may feel motivated to completely abandon a relationship (“cut someone off”) if they believe it’s no longer pleasurable but to the majority of people that can¬†appear selfish. ¬†Again, it’s easier to see that as a tempting motive for one’s own actions but would you want your parents to love you, or your friends to care for you, only as long as they feel enough pleasure from doing so, and to potentially abandon you if the relationship caused them difficulty or pain. ¬†Would a hedonist abandon a spouse dying of a terminal illness, for example? ¬†For many people that would, at least prima facie, create a conflict with other moral intuitions.

6. Brain in Vat

If we assume that the most important thing in life is pleasure then try to imagine a situation in which that could be maximized, it often highlights the conflict with other common moral intuitions.  Suppose, for example, that your brain could be removed from your body and preserved indefinitely, with complete safety, in a vat, fed by nutrient fluids and chemicals that were carefully maintained to maximize your sense of pleasure.

In this thought experiment, more or less everything else is sacrificed from a “normal” life, for the sake of achieving maximum ongoing pleasure, and avoidance of pain or suffering. ¬†This should be the naive hedonist’s ideal. ¬†However, most people feel there’s something unappealing about this as a goal in life. ¬†It clashes too much with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum. ¬†In conversations with modern Epicureans, I’ve often found that this thought-experiment appears problematic to them as well. ¬†Although, as always, there may be some individuals who would say they’re perfectly¬†happy to accept this sort of hedonistic “brain in vat” situation as the goal of life.

Another version of this criticism would be to imagine that a drug or neurosurgical¬†procedure might become available that would guarantee our long-term pleasure and freedom from pain, but would reduce our IQ to the level of a dumb animal. ¬†For the sake of argument, we can assume that for a fee our safety is ensured by caretakers. ¬†Perhaps this is an expensive form of retirement available only to the super-rich. ¬†For a fee, you can live out the rest of your life in total bliss, but you’d be rendered stupid at the same time. ¬†A happy pig rather than an unhappy wise man. ¬†Again, this tends to clash with¬†people’s moral intuitions. ¬†The Stoics were aware that most people, on reflection, are not willing to sacrifice their sanity or intelligence, for¬†virtually any price. ¬†They took this as support for their own claim that wisdom is the highest good, and goal of life.

7. Long-Term Hedonism

A common response from hedonists is to argue that some of those objections can be countered by¬†qualifying the claim that pleasure is the goal of life by specifying that it’s about maximizing long-term pleasure, and minimizing pain or discomfort. ¬†However, the Stoics and other ancient critics of hedonism realized that this was a weak defence. ¬†It actually does nothing to answer any of¬†the lines of¬†criticism mentioned above, with the possible exception of the general point about hedonism being in conflict with other moral intuitions. ¬†A hedonist might argue that if we were pursuing short-term pleasure then we might be led to do things that are typically considered unethical but that the pursuit of long-term pleasure means we’re more likely to act in an ethically praiseworthy manner.

Seneca and others point out, first of all, that¬†this way of qualifying hedonism¬†appears to make absolutely no difference if we specifically consider situations where¬†there simply is no “long-term” subjective experience for us to care about, i.e., where our death is imminent. ¬†A soldier fighting to protect the welfare of his¬†wife and children, his friends and fellow countrymen, could not use his own “long-term” pleasure as a motive for acting courageously because if he dies then he’ll obviously be incapable of experiencing it. ¬†For the Stoics, and other Socratic philosophers, virtue is its own reward, so courage in such situations would not depend on some consequence, which is thrown into question precisely because of the risk of death involved. ¬†A Stoic should be motivated to act virtuously whether or not he faces death, whereas for most hedonists this situation is ethically problematic and would potentially¬†cause him to reconsider his values.

8. Qualified Hedonism

The other typical defence of hedonism is to offer some qualification to the definition of pleasure as the supreme goal of life as a workaround. ¬†For example, we might want to add the caveat that pleasure is the highest good, as long as it’s healthy, or as long as it’s compatible with the welfare of other people, etc. ¬†That¬†seems like an easy way to sidestep conflicts with other deep-seated moral¬†convictions.

However, this solution is¬†not quite so easy, on reflection. ¬†If I say that pleasure is only the highest good insofar as it’s healthy, doesn’t it imply that I actually value health more highly than pleasure? ¬†That pleasure isn’t really the highest good at all? ¬†If I had to choose between them, which one would I sacrifice? ¬†Once we qualify the definition of the supreme good in this way, it opens a whole can of worms. ¬†We have to begin carefully reconsidering our values to identify where the highest good actually lies. ¬†Again,¬†different individuals will arrive at different conclusions but the point remains that this way of shoring up hedonism is problematic, and requires additional arguments to clarify and defend the revised¬†position being proposed.

Announcing Stoicon-x Toronto 2017

Information and schedule of speakers for Stoicon-x Toronto 2017, the conference on modern Stoicism, Sunday October 15th. The day following the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto.


Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our [tips and guidelines] for putting on your own events.

Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after Stoicon 2017. You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to this. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!

Book tickets online now.

Full Schedule

9.30am – 10am Registration and coffee

10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism

10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.45am Morning break (15 min.)

11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism

12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)

12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship

12.45pm Closing Donald Robertson (15 min.)

1pm – 1.30pm Networking

NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.

The main conference venue for Stoicon is the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale hotel, who will provide accommodation at a discounted rate if you’re attending Stoicon 2017. We cannot guarantee that rooms for all delegates will be available at the Holiday Inn. However, there are several other hotels nearby where you can stay.

What were previous Stoicon conferences like?

You can watch this YouTube video about one of our previous conferences, and some of the previous talks are available online.

The Threefold Nature of Stoic Ethics

Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.

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.

Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. ¬†These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato. ¬†They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source. ¬†However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy. ¬†(See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.) ¬†For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine. ¬†Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order. ¬†All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though. ¬†Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical. ¬†My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.

  1. Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
  2. Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our ‚Äúenemies‚ÄĚ, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
  3. Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.

For example:

But to reverence and honour thy own mind will make thee content with thyself, and in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods, that is, praising all that they give and have ordered. (Meditations, 6.16)

The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine. ¬†By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom. ¬†Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics. ¬†I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by ‚Äúliving in agreement with Nature‚ÄĚ. ¬†Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world. ¬†His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.

Living in Agreement with Nature

The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was ‚Äúthe life in agreement with nature‚ÄĚ (to homologoumenos te phusei zen). ¬†Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man. ¬†It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou). ¬†The composite Greek word translated ‚Äúagreement‚ÄĚ literally means same-saying, or same-thinking. ¬†To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts. ¬†For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions. ¬†We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.

The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably¬†implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws. ¬†It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining. ¬†Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue. ¬†We‚Äôre told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. ¬†In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we‚Äôre part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.

They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a ‚Äúsmoothly flowing‚ÄĚ life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity. ¬†Diogenes writes: ‚ÄúBy the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.‚ÄĚ ¬†This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.

Consistency and Elenchus

According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a ‚Äúharmonious disposition‚ÄĚ, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a ‚Äústate of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.‚ÄĚ ¬†And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences. ¬†Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious. ¬†The good is defined as ‚Äúthe natural perfection of a rational being qua rational‚ÄĚ, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions. ¬†They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues. ¬†However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of¬†consistency. ¬†Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.

The Stoics admired the Socratic method of¬†elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions¬†of the another person by penetrating questioning. ¬†The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions. ¬†The connotation of the phrase ‚Äúliving in agreement‚ÄĚ, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or¬†consistently. ¬†It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles. ¬†Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus. ¬†In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role. ¬† Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly. ¬†However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life. ¬†When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.

The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature. ¬†The Sage is the same in every eventuality. ¬†His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent. ¬†His thoughts don‚Äôt ‚Äúflutter‚ÄĚ between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion. ¬†The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines. ¬†He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts. ¬†We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn‚Äôt struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner ‚Äútension‚ÄĚ in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.

Oikei√īsis and Natural Affection

This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikei√īsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics. ¬†It‚Äôs a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for ‚Äúhousehold‚ÄĚ and related to the English word ‚Äúeconomy‚ÄĚ. ¬†It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household. ¬†Sometimes it‚Äôs therefore translated as ‚Äúappropriation‚ÄĚ, although we could also describe it as a process of taking ‚Äúownership‚ÄĚ. ¬†However, it seems to me that it‚Äôs best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification. ¬†Sometimes it‚Äôs also translated as ‚Äúaffinity‚ÄĚ and I believe it‚Äôs much easier to understand oikei√īsis by considering its opposite: alienation. ¬†According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, ‚Äústated that oikei√īsis is the beginning of justice‚ÄĚ but it‚Äôs much more than that, as we‚Äôll see. ¬†As Porphyry‚Äôs words imply, though, oikei√īsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.

The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it‚Äôs closely related to their concept of ‚Äúnatural affection‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúfamilial affection‚ÄĚ (philostorgia). ¬†The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates. ¬†Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture. ¬†The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. ¬†The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social. ¬†(So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.) ¬†The bull identifies with, and has ‚Äúfamilial affection‚ÄĚ, for the rest of his herd. ¬†He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his ‚Äúhousehold‚ÄĚ. ¬†(Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.) ¬†Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our ‚Äúhousehold‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúfamily‚ÄĚ, as if we were all members of the same herd.

For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our ‚Äúhousehold‚ÄĚ to encompass all rational beings, as our kin. ¬†The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely ‚Äúphilanthropic‚ÄĚ (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his ‚Äúhousehold‚ÄĚ as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters. ¬†The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles. ¬†We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity. ¬†He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household. ¬†He even suggests we call friends ‚Äúbrother‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúsister‚ÄĚ and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship. ¬†Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers ‚Äúbrother‚ÄĚ. ¬†When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said ‚Äúa second self‚ÄĚ (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage. ¬†Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self. ¬†On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice. ¬†Even toward one‚Äôs enemies, there should be a sense of connection. ¬†As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we‚Äôre the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another. ¬†Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are ‚Äútrue citizens or friends or kindred or free men‚ÄĚ and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions. ¬†Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikei√īsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.

However, it‚Äôs long been understood that for Stoics oikei√īsis functions at two levels: self and social. ¬†The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology. ¬†The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning. ¬†At birth, we‚Äôre driven by our self-preservation instincts. ¬†Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body. ¬†If you were to ask someone whether they‚Äôd rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie. ¬†The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikei√īsis that operates within the individual. ¬†On the other hand, we‚Äôre to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue. ¬†As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine. ¬†We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.

When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikei√īsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings. ¬†For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who‚Äôs trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness. ¬†For the Stoics, this means also that we‚Äôre akin to the gods, with whom we share reason. ¬†It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called ‚Äúbarbarians‚ÄĚ, foreigners who didn‚Äôt speak their language. ¬†Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom ‚Äď that‚Äôs what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.

Those two forms of oikei√īsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikei√īsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world. ¬†That maps the central ethical concept of oikei√īsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. ¬†I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikei√īsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that‚Äôs already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature. ¬†In part, it‚Äôs what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche‚Äôs phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate. ¬†Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining. ¬†Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals. ¬†If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we‚Äôll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we‚Äôre averse. ¬†To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.

The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure

As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation¬†between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues. ¬†It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:

Virtues Relationships Topics Disciplines
Wisdom Self Logic Assent
Justice Others Ethics Action
Courage and
World Physics Fear and

Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema. ¬†However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions. ¬†Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.