@Stoicweek article in The Guardian online

@Stoicweek article in The Guardian online today…

@Stoicweek article in The Guardian online

The true meaning of stoicism has been lost over time, but Stoic Week aims to show it is still a relevant and useful philosophy…

See link below for the rest of the article…

Be Stoic for a Week: Guardian Online

Follow @Stoicweek on Twitter #Stoicweek

Also see the University of Exeter blog for Stoic Week:

Stoicism Today

Goethe: Aphorisms on Nature

Goethe’s Aphorisms on Nature, translated by T.H. Huxley.

Goethe: Aphorisms on Nature

T. H. Huxley

NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms.

She is ever shaping new forms: what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.

We live in her midst and know her not. She is incessantly speaking to us, but betrays not her secret. We constantly act upon her, and yet have no power over her.

The one thing she seems to aim at is Individuality; yet she cares nothing for individuals. She is always building up and destroying; but her workshop is inaccessible.

Her life is in her children; but where is the mother? She is the only artist; working-up the most uniform material into utter opposites; arriving, without a trace of effort, at perfection, at the most exact precision, though always veiled under a certain softness.

Each of her works has an essence of its own; each of her phenomena a special characterisation: and yet their diversity is in unity.

She performs a play; we know not whether she sees it herself, and yet she acts for us, the lookers-on.

Incessant life, development, and movement are in her, but she advances not. She changes for ever and ever, and rests not a moment. Quietude is inconceivable to her, and she has laid her curse upon rest. She is firm. Her steps are measured, her exceptions rare, her laws unchangeable.

She has always thought and always thinks; though not as a man, but as Nature. She broods over an all-comprehending idea, which no searching can find out.

Mankind dwell in her and she in them. With all men she plays a game for love, and rejoices the more they win. With many, her moves are so hidden, that the game is over before they know it.

That which is most unnatural is still Nature; the stupidest philistinism has a touch of her genius. Whoso cannot see her everywhere, sees her nowhere rightly.

She loves herself, and her innumberable eyes and affections are fixed upon herself. She has divided herself that she may be her own delight. She causes an endless succession of new capacities for enjoyment to spring up, that her insatiable sympathy may be assuaged.

She rejoices in illusion. Whoso destroys it in himself and others, him she punishes with the sternest tyranny. Whoso follows her in faith, him she takes as a child to her bosom.

Her children are numberless. To none is she altogether miserly; but she has her favourites, on whom she squanders much, and for whom she makes great sacrifices. Over greatness she spreads her shield.

She tosses her creatures out of nothingness, and tells them not whence they came, nor whither they go. It is their business to run, she knows the road.

Her mechanism has few springs — but they never wear out, are always active and manifold.

The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.

She wraps man in darkness, and makes him for ever long for light. She creates him dependent upon the earth, dull and heavy; and yet is always shaking him until he attempts to soar above it.

She creates needs because she loves action. Wondrous! that she produces all this action so easily. Every need is a benefit, swiftly satisfied, swiftly renewed.— Every fresh want is a new source of pleasure, but she soon reaches an equilibrium.

Every instant she commences an immense journey, and every instant she has reached her goal.

She is vanity of vanities; but not to us, to whom she has made herself of the greatest importance. She allows every child to play tricks with her; every fool to have judgment upon her; thousands to walk stupidly over her and see nothing; and takes her pleasure and finds her account in them all.

We obey her laws even when we rebel against them; we work with her even when we desire to work against her.

She makes every gift a benefit by causing us to want it. She delays, that we may desire her; she hastens, that we may not weary of her.

She has neither language nor discourse; but she creates tongues and hearts, by which she feels and speaks.

Her crown is love. Through love alone dare we come near her. She separates all existences, and all tend to intermingle. She has isolated all things in order that all may approach one another. She holds a couple of draughts from the cup of love to be fair payment for the pains of a lifetime.

She is all things. She rewards herself and punishes herself; is her own joy and her own misery. She is rough and tender, lovely and hateful, powerless and omnipotent. She is an eternal present. Past and future are unknown to her. The present is her eternity. She is beneficient. I praise her and all her works. She is silent and wise.

No explanation is wrung from her; no present won from her, which she does not give freely. She is cunning, but for good ends; and it is best not to notice her tricks.

She is complete, but never finished. As she works now, so can she always work. Everyone sees her in his own fashion. She hides under a thousand names and phrases, and is always the same. She has brought me here and will also lead me away. I trust her. She may scold me, but she will not hate her work. It was not I who spoke of her. No! What is false and what is true, she has spoken it all. The fault, the merit, is all hers.

Follow @StoicWeek on Twitter

Update on the forthcoming Stoic Week event being run by the university of Westminster, and our online poll on Stoicism.

Follow @StoicWeek on Twitter

The “Stoic Week” event being organised by the University of Exeter starts this Monday (26th November).  You can follow updates and Stoic snippets on Twitter via the @StoicWeek account and the #StoicWeek hashtag.  There’s also some discussion on this thread in the Stoicism Reddit.  The main blog and website for the study is hosted by the university at the address below:


Please spread the word by Tweeting or sharing the links if you can to raise awareness of this.  Also look out for regular posts and updates on the blog and Twitter during the week.

Finally, we’ve had over 300 votes already on the “Who is your favourite Stoic?” poll below.  Vote now and see the results so far:

Name Change: The Virtual Stoic

Update about name change of blog and new book (Teach yourself Stoicism) as well as an archive of recent posts on Stoicism.

Name Change: The Virtual Stoic
New Book: Teach yourself Stoicism

Quick update…  You may already have noticed, gentle reader, that I’ve changed the name of my blog from The Philosophy of CBT (although I’m sticking with the domain name for now) to The Virtual Stoic.  The main reason is that this has turned into more of a blog focused on classics and philosophy (with a psychotherapy twist), whereas most of my posts on CBT are on my other blog (www.londoncognitive.com).

The other reason (and this is news item #2) is that I’m currently writing a new book, under contract to a major publisher, called Teach yourself Stoicism, due out next year.  This will be my second or third book on Stoicism, depending on whether you count Build your Resilience (2012), another book in Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, which contains references to Stoic philosophy throughout and has a final chapter dedicated to this subject.  My first book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of CBT (2010), was a bit more of an academic text on philosophy and psychotherapy, Teach yourself Stoicism is more of a self-help book for the mass market.  It’s well under way now and bits of it (at least the draft version) are being used in the downloadable handbook for the “Living the Stoic Life” study at the University of Exeter.

Hence, in case you wondered what’s going on, I’ve been churning out lots of posts recently on Stoic-related trivia.  In case you missed anything interesting, here’s a little bonus, the archive of recent blog posts – enjoy!

The Stoic Metaphor of Profitable Transactions

This short article explores the recurring Stoic metaphor that life is a series of financial transactions, that may be profitable or involve loss, and that the wise man does not see externals as worth buying at the expense of his own character and excellence.

The Stoic Metaphor of Profitable Transactions

Chrysippus-BustCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

[This is still a draft of a work in progress so feel free to comment with suggestions for additions or corrections.]

“For what shall it profit [ôphelei] a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark, 8.36)

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew, 6.24)

What if we were to view life as consisting of a series of “transactions”, in which our own actions and character are “spent” in exchange for various things?  According to the Stoics, virtue is always profitable, because it is a reward enough in itself but also leads to many other good things, such as friendship. Accepting that your fate entails the occasional loss of external things is the price nature demands for your sanity.  If the price you pay for external things is that you enslave yourself to them or to other people, says Epictetus, then be grateful that if you renounce them by saving your freedom you have profited insofar as you put a higher value upon that.

This metaphor goes back at least as far as Socrates, who says in Plato’s Phaedo:

The exchange of one fear or pleasure or pain for another fear or pleasure or pain, which are measured like coins, the greater with the less, is not the exchange of virtue. O, my dear Simmias, is there not one true coin, for which all things ought to exchange?—and that is wisdom; and only in exchange for this, and in company with this, is anything truly bought or sold, whether courage or temperance or justice. …in the true exchange, there is a purging away of all these things, and temperance, and justice, and courage, and wisdom herself are a purgation of them.

The early Stoics reputedly defined the good as, among other things, that which is lusiteles or “profitable” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 7.98).  According to Diogenes Laertius, this term was used as a synonym for the good specifically “because it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort”.  However, the same concept is appealed to by the late Roman Stoics.  For example, Epictetus refers to the incident when a thief stole his (relatively valuable) iron lamp during the night:

That is why I lost my lamp, because in the matter of keeping awake the thief was better than I was.  However, he bought a lamp for a very high price; for a lamp he became a thief, for a lamp he became untrustworthy, for a lamp he became like a wild-beast.  This seemed to him to be profitable [lusiteles]. (Discourses, 1.29.21)

He also alludes her to another Stoic theory, which held that insofar as we abandon reason and hand over our actions to our passions we become like animals rather than rational human beings.  By placing too much value on external objects we risk sacrificing our very humanity.  At times, indeed, this analogy with financial transactions is made very explicit in Stoic writings:

[…] and bear in mind that, if you do not act the same way that others do, with a view to getting things which are not under our control. you cannot be considered worthy to receive an equal share with others. […] You will be unjust, therefore, and insatiable, if, while refusing to pay the price for which such things are bought, you want to obtain them for nothing.  Well, what is the price for heads of lettuce?  An obol, perhaps.  If, then, somebody gives up his obol and gets his heads of lettuce, while you do not give your obol, and do not get them, do not imagine that you are worse off than the man who gets his lettuce.  For as he has heads of lettuce, so you have your obol which you have not given away.

Now it is the same way also in life.  You have not been invited to somebody’s dinner party?  Of course not; for you didn’t give the host the price at which he sells his dinner.  He sells it for praise; he sells it for personal attention.  Give him the price, then, for which it is sold, if it is to your interest.  But if you wish both not to give up the one and yet to get the other, you are insatiable and a simpleton.  Have you, then, nothing in place of the dinner?  Indeed you have; you have not had to praise the man you did not want to  praise; you have not had to put up with the insolence of his doorkeepers. (Enchiridion, 25)

Likewise, we’re told that for the early Stoics the most important synonym of the good (agathos) was the noun “benefit” (ôpheleia) or “help” (yes, perhaps like the name of Hamlet’s “girlfriend”, Ophelia).  This word can mean the “help” a physician provides to a patient, military support, but also help or assistance in a more general sense, including financial assistance, and it is sometimes also translated as a “profit”.

What, must you lose a bit of money so as to suffer damage, and does the loss of nothing else damage a man? Yet, if you lost your skill in the use of language or in music, you would regard the loss of it as damage but if you are going to lose self-respect and dignity and gentleness, do you think that does not matter? […] What does the adulterer lose?  He loses the man of self-respect that was, the man of self-control, the gentleman, the citizen, the neighbour.  What doe the man lose who is given to anger?  Something else.  Who is given to fear?  Something else.  No one is wretched without loss and damage.  Furthermore, if you look for your loss in  money, all those whom I have just mentioned suffer neither injury nor loss; nay, if it so chance, they even get gain and profit [ôpheleia], when, through some of their deeds just mentioned they also acquire money. […] Is there, then, no such thing as a faculty of the mind, the possession of which means gain to a man, and the loss, injury? –What faculty do you mean?  Have we not a natural sense of self-respect [which is lost or harmed]? (Discourses, 2.10.14-22)

In other words, “the good” was interpreted as analogous to something profitable in a financial transaction or, as we might say, it’s a “good investment” on our part, one that “repays” everything we put into it.  We might say the Stoic refuses to “sell out” and abandon his fundamental principles for material gain.  There are, in fact, many references to the metaphor of financial transactions in the surviving Stoic literature and so this concept appears to have been a very old and important one in the Stoic tradition.  It seems likely that the founders of Stoicism, whose writings are almost entirely lost to us now, may have written more on the subject, which inspired the later Roman Stoics to continue the theme.

Thus then in life also the chief business is this: distinguish and separate things, and say, Externals are not in my power: will is in my power. Where shall I seek the good and the bad? Within, in the things which are my own. But in what does not belong to you call nothing either good or bad, or profit [ôpheleia] or damage or any thing of the kind. (Discourses, 2.5, 4-5)

What then is being bought and sold?

Do you suppose that you can do the things you do now, and yet be a philosopher?  Do you suppose that you can eat in the same fashion, drink in the same fashion, give  way to anger and to irritation, just as you do now?  You must keep vigils, work hard, overcome certain desires, abandon your own people, be despised by a paltry slave, be laughed to scorn by those who meet you, in everything get the worst of it, in office, in honour, in court.  Look these drawbacks over carefully, and then, if you think best, approach philosophy, that is, if you are willing at the price of these things to secure absence of irrational passions [apatheia], freedom [eleutheria], and absence of distress [ataraxia]. (Discourses, 3.15.8-12; cf. Enchiridion, 29)

Essentially, we are selling our own essential nature as rational beings, our ruling faculty (hêgemonikon) or volition (prohairesis), into slavery.  More specifically, Epictetus repeatedly refers to the price we are willing to pay for:

  1. “Absence of irrational passions” (apatheia), sometimes translated as tranquillity or calm
  2. “Absence of distress” (ataraxia), sometimes translated as peace of mind
  3. “Freedom” (eleutheria), which contrasts with the many references to “slavery” in Stoic writings

Hence, we are by nature “free” but sell ourselves, throughout life, in a way that must, to the ancient  Greeks and Romans, have recalled the selling of a slave, a metaphor widespread in Stoic literature.

Now it so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable, are different for different persons.  It is for this reason especially that we need education, so as to learn how, in conformity with nature, to adapt to specific instances our preconceive idea of what is rational and what is irrational.  But for determining the rational and the irrational, we employ not only our estimates of the value of external things, but also the criterion of that which is in keeping with one’s own character.  […] For you are the one that knows yourself, how much you are worth in your own eyes and at what price you sell yourself.  For different men sell themselves at different prices. (Discourses, 1.2.11)

Study these things, these judgements, these arguments, look at these examples, if you wish to have freedom [eleutheria], if you desire the thing itself in proportion to its value.  And what wonder is there if you buy something so great at the price of things so many and so great? (Discourses, 4.1.170-172)

The price of being a philosopher, and fulfilling our potential as rational beings, can be particularly high but the rewards make it a profitable investment.

But that this may take place [the attainment of wisdom] a man must accept no small troubles, and must miss no small things.  You cannot wish for a consulship and at the same time wish for this; you cannot have set your heart upon having lands and this too; you cannot at the same time be solicitous for your paltry slaves and yourself too.  But if you wish for any one of the things that are not your own, what is your own is lost.  This is the nature of the matter: Nothing is done except for a price [proika ouden ginetai].  And why be surprised? […] For absence of irrational passions [apatheia], then, for absence of distress [ataraxia], for sleeping when you are asleep, and being awake when you are awake, for fearing nothing, for being in great anxiety about nothing, are you unwilling to spend anything, to make any exertion?  But if something that belongs to you be lost while you are engaged in these affairs, or be spent to no purpose, or someone else get what you ought to have got, are you going to be vexed immediately at what has happened?  Will you not balance off what you are getting in return for what, how much in return for how much?  Nay, do you wish to get such valuable things for nothing?  And how can you?  “One serious business [has no partnership] with another.”

You cannot be continually giving attention to both externals and your own ruling faculty [hêgemonikon].  But if you want the former, let the latter go; otherwise you will have neither the latter nor the former, being drawn in both directions. (Discourses, 4.10.18-20)

The proverb “One serious business has no partnership with another” resembles “You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Also, “Do you wish to get such valuable things for nothing?”, etc., might be seen to resemble Spinoza’s “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Your paltry oil gets spilled, your miserable wine stolen; say to yourself, “This is the price paid for absence of irrational passions [apatheia], this is the price for absence of distress [ataraxia].”  Nothing is got without a price. (Enchiridion, 12)

In short, it’s possible that the phrase “nothing is got without a price”, which occurs twice in Epictetus, is being presented as a maxim employed in Stoicism, albeit one which could have been an already-established folk-saying.

Before the Stoics, in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates uses the analogy of financial transaction to suggest that men who show courage in one situation out of fear of another, or moderation in one area for the sake of licence in another, are doing so at no profit and that the only “valid currency” which pleasures and pains should be exchanged for the sake of, is wisdom (Phaedo, 69ab).  When we endure pain or forbear pleasure for wisdom, we have genuine virtue, otherwise we have pseudo-virtues.  Yet if men are willing to suffer danger for lust, we might add, or to sacrifice pleasure to avoid danger, then this proves that virtue is possible, and lovers of wisdom should be even more willing than these men to do the same things for greater profit.  If men are willing to show great courage and self-discipline for small change then why are we not willing to do so for the chief good in life?

Stoicism in the Poetry of Persius

Excerpts from the fifth Satire of the poet Persius, a contemporary of Seneca, which deals with his own Stoic education.

Stoicism in the Poetry of Persius

Aulus-Persius-FlaccusPersius was a Roman poet and satirist (34-62 AD), who was apparently schooled in Stoic philosophy from adolescence and explicitly refers to it in his surviving writings.  He was a contemporary of the philosopher Seneca, whom he apparently met, and was friends with Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic epic-poet Lucan, although his own mentor was Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, also a Stoic.

Persius’ fifth Satire is actually dedicated to Cornutus, focuses on Stoic philosophy, and expresses his gratitude to the man who taught him “the Stoic way of life”.  Some excerpts that address relevant themes are as follows:

Has philosophy taught you to live
a good upstanding life?  Can you tell the true from the specious,
alert for the false chink of copper beneath the gold?
Have you settled what to aim for and also what to avoid,
marking the former list with chalk and the other with charcoal?
Are your wants modest, your housekeeping thrifty?  Are you nice to your friends?
Do you know when to shut your barns and throw them open? […]

Well then, two hooks are pulling on opposite ways.
Which will you follow, this or that?  Your loyalty is bound
to vacillate, obeying and desecrating each master in turn.
Even if you once succeed in making a stand and defying
their incessant orders, you can’t say ‘I’ve broken my bonds!’
For a dog may snap its fastening after a struggle, but still
as it runs away a length of chain trails from its neck.

Living the Stoic Life at Exeter University

Link to the Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog at the University of Exeter for the thirty-page handbook that’s been designed, and just put online this evening, for those wishing to experiment with the Stoic way of living.

Living the Stoic Life at Exeter

See the link below to the Stoicism and its Modern Uses blog at the University of Exeter for the thirty-page handbook that’s been designed, and just put online this evening, for those wishing to experiment with the Stoic way of living.

Stoic Handbook: Living the Stoic Life