Were Hand Gestures a Technique of Stoicism?

Short article describing the potential use of a series of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno, as a psychological exercise or coping strategy in modern Stoicism.

Hand Gestures in Stoicism

Were they a psychological technique?

Chrysippus Gesturing

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

[This is still a draft, using material I’m researching for my next book, so please feel free to comment or raise questions, and I may revise the content accordingly.]

The early Stoics reputedly said that “knowledge is the leading part of the soul in a certain state, just as the hand in a certain state is a fist” (Sextus in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, The Stoic Reader, p. 27).  This analogy between secure knowledge, having a firm grasp on an idea, and the physical act of clenching the fist seems to be a recurring theme in Stoic literature.

And Zeno used to make this point by using a gesture.  When he held out his hand with open fingers, he would say, “This is what a presentation is like.”  Then when he had closed his fingers a bit, he said, “Assent is like this.”  And when he had compressed it completely and made a fist, he said that this was grasping (and on the basis o f this comparison he even gave it the name ‘katalepsis’ [grasp], which had not previously existed).  But when he put his left hand over it and compressed it tightly and powerfully, he said that knowledge was this sort of thing and that no one except the wise man possessed it.  (Cicero in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, p. 47)

The sculpture of Chrysippus in the picture above, from the 3rd century BC, shows him holding his hand out with open fingers, in a similar posture.  So we have a series of four hand gestures:

  1. The hand is held open, at a distance, with palm upwards, to symbolise a superficial impression or “presentation”.
  2. The hand is closed loosely, to symbolise initial “assent” or agreement with the idea.
  3. The hand is squeezed tightly into a fist to symbolise a firm grasp (katalepsis) or sense of certainty.
  4. The fist is enclosed tightly in the other hand, to symbolise the perfect “knowledge” of true ideas attained by the ideal Sage, which is elsewhere described as an interconnection of firmly-grasped principles and ideas, forming the excellent character of the wise.

Marcus Aurelius explicitly refers to the Stoic clenching his fist as a metaphor for arming himself with his philosophical precepts or dogmata:

In our use of [Stoic] precepts [dogmata] we should imitate the boxer [pancratiast] not the swordsman [gladiator].  For the swordsman’s weapon is picked up and put down again.  However, the boxer always has his hands available.  All he has to do is clench his fist. (Meditations, 12.9)

For the Stoics it was important to memorise the precepts and integrate them completely with one’s character in order to have them always “ready-to-hand” in the face of adversity.  It’s possible that the physical act of literally clenching the fist, like a boxer, was used as a mnemonic to recall principles required in difficult situations.

It’s possible perhaps to construct a modern Stoic psychological exercise out of this symbolic set of hand gestures.  While repeating a precept of Stoicism (“the only good is moral good”, “pain is not an evil”) the Stoic student might initially hold his hand open as if toying with the idea and then progressively close it more tightly, while imagining accepting it more deeply, until he finally clenches his fist tightly to symbolise having a firm grasp of the idea, and closes his other hand around it, to symbolise integrating it more deeply with his character, and contemplating how the Sage might hold this belief.  This might be compared to the use of “autosuggestions” or rehearsing “rational coping statements” in modern psychological therapies.

There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas.  In the Enchiridion, Epictetus says that the first thing a Stoic should do when encountering a harsh (problematic) impression is to remind himself that it is merely an impression and not at all the thing it claims to represent.  This sounds very much like an important psychological strategy used in modern CBT and behaviour therapy, called “cognitive distancing” or “defusion”.  As it happens, Cicero says that the hand gesture demonstrated in the sculpture of Chrysippus above was used by Zeno and other Stoics to symbolise entertaining an idea, such as an “automatic negative thought”, in the form of a superficial “presentation” or impression.  Hence, a modern Stoic might make the same gesture when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc.

We don’t know whether the set of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno was meant originally as a psychological technique of this kind.  However, the quote from Marcus Aurelius above could perhaps be read, if taken very literally, as a description of an actual physical practice employed by Stoic students: clenching their fists to arm themselves, like a boxer, with their philosophical precepts (dogmata) in the face of adversity.

Stoicism and Therapy: Exeter University

Some thoughts and notes following a recent academic workshop on Stoic philosophy and modern therapy at the university of Exeter.

Stoicism & Therapy

Workshop at Exeter University

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

I’ve just come back from an academic workshop at the University of Exeter, organised by Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought.  Prof. Gill has a special interest in Galen and Stoicism, and their relevance for modern physical and mental wellbeing.

University of Exeter: Ancient Healthcare Blog

Update: The new blog below has been set up by Exeter University and contains detailed minutes from the workshop:

Stoicism and Its Modern Uses Blog

Along with Professor John Wilkins, Prof. Gill, leads the Healthcare and Wellbeing: Ancient Paradigms and Modern Debates  project in the Department  of Classics and Ancient History.  The project explores  the significance of ancient  medicine and psychology for modern debates  and practice in healthcare and  psychotherapy.

Our discussion involved a number of professional psychologists, psychotherapists and academic philosophers and classicists, with a specialist interest in Stoic philosophy, including Tim Lebon, author of Wise Therapy, Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life, and John Sellars, author of The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy.  I talked briefly about the potential relevance of Stoicism for “third-wave” (mindfulness and acceptance-based) CBT, and vice versa.  Prof. Gill concluded with a discussion of his recent work on the thought and writings of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor and philosopher.

My previous book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, goes into the practical analogies between Hellenistic philosophy and modern psychotherapy in some detail, from a moderately academic perspective.  By contrast, my subsequent self-help book Build your Resilience, in addition to many references to Marcus Aurelius, concludes with a chapter  on Stoicism and Psychological Resilience-Building, written as an introduction for the lay reader.  This is currently being expanded by me into a new book about Stoicism, which provides a much more comprehensive introduction to the use of Stoic concepts and techniques in daily living.

Stoic Philosophy in Build your Resilience (2012)

This excerpt from Donald Robertson’s book Build your Resilience (2012) explains the essence of Stoic philosophy and its relationship with moder resilience building.

Stoic Philosophy & Resilience-Building

Excerpts from Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive & Thrive in any Situation

Teach-Yourself-ResilienceCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1444168711

Details on Google Books

My previous book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) discussed the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy in some detail, from an academic perspective. My new book, Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive and Thrive in any Situation (2012), is a self-help guide to psychological resilience-building, based on modern CBT. However, it contains many references to Stoic philosophy. The outline below is based on modified excerpts from the text, which is available for pre-order now from Amazon and other online book stores.

Most of the chapters begin with a quotation from Marcus Aurelius, linking ancient Stoic practices to modern cognitive-behavioural approaches to psychological resilience-building. However, the final chapter, looks at perhaps the oldest Western system of resilience-building, the classical Graeco-Roman school of philosophy known as “Stoicism”, which is derived from the teachings of Socrates and influenced the development of modern CBT (Robertson, 2010). The Stoics are, in a sense, the ancient forebears of most modern resilience-building approaches. Indeed, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who has most influenced the field of psychotherapy, has been described as “the patron saint of the resilient” (Neenan, 2009, p. 21).

The Essence of Stoicism

So what practical advice do the Stoics give us about building resilience? Well, this is a philosophy that can be studied for a lifetime and more detailed accounts are available. An excellent modern guide to Stoicism already exists in the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by Prof. William Irvine, an academic philosopher in the USA (Irvine, 2009). My own writings, especially my book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, have focused on describing the relationship between Stoicism and modern psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010; Robertson, 2005).

However, although, Stoicism is a vast subject, it was based upon a handful of simple principles. Epictetus summed up the essence of Stoicism as “following Nature” through the “correct use of impressions”. By “following Nature”, the Stoics meant something twofold: accepting external events as decreed by the Nature of the universe, while acting fully in accord with your own nature as a rational human being, living in accord with your core values. (Scholars capitalise “Nature” when referring to the nature of the universe as a whole, whereas lower-case “nature” means your internal human nature as an individual.)

Don’t treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you. (Meditations, 12:32)

Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re allotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it.

Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should – and as other people deserve. (Meditations, 12: 1)

However, the basic twofold principle “follow Nature” leads on to an elaborate system of applied philosophy, which this chapter will explore in more detail.

The first few passages of the philosophical Handbookof Epictetus provide arguably the most authoritative summary of basic Stoic theory and practice. I’ve paraphrased the key statements below, to highlight the possible continuity with ACT, CBT and the approaches to resilience-building discussed in this book.

  1. The Handbookbegins with a very clear and simple “common sense” declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.

  2. Our own actions are, by definition, under our control, including our opinions and intentions (e.g., commitments to valued action), etc.

  3. Everything other than our own actions is not under our direct control, particularly our health, wealth and reputation, etc. (Although, we can influencemany external things through our actions we do not have complete or direct control over them, they do not happen simply as we will them to.)

  4. Things directly under our control are, by definition, free and unimpeded, but everything else we might desire to control is hindered by external factors, i.e., partly down to fate.

  5. The Stoic should continually remember that much emotional suffering is caused by mistakenly assuming, or acting as if, external things are directly under our control.

  6. Assuming that external events are under our control also tends to mislead us into excessively blaming others and the world for our emotional suffering.

  7. However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (“no one will harm you”) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.

  8. To really succeed in living as a Stoic, you need to be highly committed, and may need to abandon or at least temporarily postpone the pursuit of external things such as wealth or reputation, etc. (Stoics like Epictetus lived in poverty while others, like Marcus Aurelius, tried to follow the principles while commanding great wealth and power – both were considered valid ways of living for a Stoic but Marcus perhaps believed his complex and privileged lifestyle made commitment to Stoicism more difficult at times.)

  9. From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (“impressions”) and saying in response to them: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.” (Something that closely this resembles the basic strategy we call “distancing” or “defusion” in modern CBT.)

  10. After doing this, ask yourself whether the impression involves thinking about what is under your control or not; if not, then say to yourself, “It is nothing to me.” (Meaning, it’s essentially indifferent to me if it’s not under my control – I just need to accept it; although the Stoics did admit that some external outcomes are naturally to be preferred, despite lacking true intrinsic value.)

The Teach Yourself book goes on to describe the basic principles of Stoicism in more detail and, in particular, to elaborate upon some of the basic psychological strategies employed for resilience-building by the Stoic sages, such as acting “with a reserve clause”, visualising the “view from above”, and contemplation of the ideal Sage, etc.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: What is Resilience?

  2. Letting go of Experiential Avoidance

  3. Values Clarification

  4. Commitment to Valued Action

  5. Acceptance & Defusion

  6. Mindfulness & the Present Moment

  7. Progressive Relaxation

  8. Applied Relaxation

  9. Worry Postponement

  10. Problem-Solving Training

  11. Assertiveness & Social Skills

  12. Stoic Philosophy & Resilience

About the Author

Donald Robertson is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Harley Street. He is a CBT practitioner specialising in treating anxiety and building resilience and director of a leading therapy training organisation. He is the author of many journal articles and three books on therapy, The Philosophy of CBT, The Discovery of Hypnosis, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy, and blogs regularly from his website www.londoncognitive.com.

Pre-Order Online

Available for pre-order online from….

The Earl of Shaftesbury on The View from Above

An excerpt from the personal philosophical regimen of the 17th century Earl of Shaftesbury, with a good description of the View from Above, based on his reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

The Earl of Shaftesbury

The View from Above

Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury
Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury

This quotation from the private philosophical regimen of Antony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), contains a good description of The View from Above, probably closely based upon his reading of Marcus Aurelius:

View the heavens.  See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed.  Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being.  Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture.  Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony.  Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense.  For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory.  Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things.  And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe.

Marcus Aurelius on Anger & Empathy

In this brief excerpt from The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius provides a list of strategies used by him to counter his own feelings of anger and antipathy.

Marcus Aurelius

On Anger & Empathy

(Excerpt from Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 11 §18, translation by D. Robertson (c) 2009)

When offended by other people’s actions,

  1. Remember the close bond between yourself and the rest of mankind…
  2. Think of the characters of those who offend you at the table, in their beds, and so on. In particular, remember the effect their negative way of thinking has on them, and the misplaced confidence it gives them in their actions.
  3. If what they’re doing is right, you’ve no reason to complain; and if it’s not right, then it must have been involuntary and unintentional. Because just as “no-one ever deliberately denies the truth,” according to Socrates, so nobody ever intentionally treats another person badly. That’s why these negative people are themselves insulted if anyone accuses them of injustice, ingratitude, meanness, or any other sort of offence against their neighbours -they just don’t realise they’re doing wrong.
  4. You yourself, are no different from them, and upset people in various ways. You might avoid making some mistakes, but the thought and inclination is still there, even if cowardice or egotism or some other negative motive has held you back you from copying their mistakes.
  5. Remember, you’ve got no guarantee they’re doing the wrong thing anyway, people’s motives aren’t always what they seem. There’s usually a lot to learn before any sure-footed moral judgements can be made about other people’s actions.
  6. Tell yourself, when you feel upset and fed up, that human life is transient and only lasts a moment; it won’t be long before we’ll all have been laid to rest.
  7. Get rid of this, make a decision to quit thinking of things as insulting, and your anger immediately disappears. How do you get rid of these thoughts? By realising that you’ve not really been harmed by their actions. Moreover, unless genuine harm to your soul is all that worries you, you’ll wind up being guilty of all sorts of offences against other people yourself.
  8. Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we’re annoyed about hurt us.
  9. Kindness is an irresistible force, so long as it’s genuine and without any fake smiles or two-facedness. Even the most stubborn bad attitude is nothing, if you just keep being nice to the person concerned. Politely comment on his behaviour when you get the chance and, just when he’s about to have another go at you, gently make him self-conscious by saying “No, my son; we’re not meant for this. I’ll not be hurt; you’re just hurting yourself.” Subtly draw his attention to this general fact; even bees and other animals that live in groups don’t act like he does. Do it without any hint of sarcasm or nit-picking, though; do it with real affection and with your heart free from resentment. Don’t talk to him harshly like a school teacher or try to impress bystanders but, even though other people may be around, talk as if you’re alone together in private.

Keep these nine pieces of advice in mind, like nine gifts from the Muses; and while there’s still life in you, begin at last to be a man. While guarding yourself against being angry with others, though, be just as careful to avoid the opposite extreme, of toadying. One’s just as bad as the other, and both cause problems. With bouts of rage, always remind yourself that losing your temper is no sign of manhood. On the contrary, there’s more strength, as well as more natural humanity, in someone capable of remaining calm and gentle. He proves he’s got strength and nerve and guts, unlike his angry, complaining friend. Anger’s just as much a sign of weakness as bubbling with tears; in both cases we’re giving in to suffering.

Finally, a tenth idea, this time from the very leader of the Muses, Apollo himself. To expect bad men never to do bad things is just madness; it’s asking the impossible. And to let them abuse other people, and expect them to leave you alone, that is arrogance.

Marcus Aurelius on Anger and Empathy

This is a brief quotation from Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic Meditations, concerning the Stoic practice of overcoming anger and cultivating empathy.

Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Empathy

Marcus Aurelius(Excerpt from Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 11 §18)


This is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for pre-order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Empathy

When offended by other people’s actions,

  1. Remember the close bond between yourself and the rest of mankind…
  2. Think of the characters of those who offend you at the table, in their beds, and so on. In particular, remember the effect their negative way of thinking has on them, and the misplaced confidence it gives them in their actions.
  3. If what they’re doing is right, you’ve no reason to complain; and if it’s not right, then it must have been involuntary and unintentional. Because just as “no-one ever deliberately denies the truth,” according to Socrates, so nobody ever intentionally treats another person badly. That’s why these negative people are themselves insulted if anyone accuses them of injustice, ingratitude, meanness, or any other sort of offence against their neighbours -they just don’t realise they’re doing wrong.
  4. You yourself, are no different from them, and upset people in various ways. You might avoid making some mistakes, but the thought and inclination is still there, even if cowardice or egotism or some other negative motive has held you back you from copying their mistakes.
  5. Remember, you’ve got no guarantee they’re doing the wrong thing anyway, people’s motives aren’t always what they seem. There’s usually a lot to learn before any sure-footed moral judgements can be made about other people’s actions.
  6. Tell yourself, when you feel upset and fed up, that human life is transient and only lasts a moment; it won’t be long before we’ll all have been laid to rest.
  7. It’s not the actions of these men that upsets us that’s their own problem but the colour we put on them ourselves. Get rid of this, make a decision to quit thinking of things as insulting, and your anger immediately disappears. How do you get rid of these thoughts? By realising that you’ve not really been harmed by their actions. Moreover, unless genuine harm to your soul is all that worries you, you’ll wind up being guilty of all sorts of offences against other people yourself.
  8. Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we’re annoyed about hurt us.
  9. Kindness is an irresistible force, so long as it’s genuine and without any fake smiles or two-facedness. Even the most stubborn bad attitude is nothing, if you just keep being nice to the person concerned. Politely comment on his behaviour when you get the chance and, just when he’s about to have another go at you, gently make him self-conscious by saying “No, my son; we’re not meant for this. I’ll not be hurt; you’re just hurting yourself.” Subtly draw his attention to this general fact; even bees and other animals that live in groups don’t act like he does. Do it without any hint of sarcasm or nit-picking, though; do it with real affection and with your heart free from resentment. Don’t talk to him harshly like a school teacher or try to impress bystanders but, even though other people may be around, talk as if you’re alone together in private.

Keep these nine pieces of advice in mind, like nine gifts from the Muses; and while there’s still life in you, begin at last to be a man. While guarding yourself against being angry with others, though, be just as careful to avoid the opposite extreme, of toadying. One’s just as bad as the other, and both cause problems. With bouts of rage, always remind yourself that losing your temper is no sign of manhood. On the contrary, there’s more strength, as well as more natural humanity, in someone capable of remaining calm and gentle. He proves he’s got strength and nerve and guts, unlike his angry, complaining friend. Anger’s just as much a sign of weakness as bubbling with tears; in both cases we’re giving in to suffering.

Finally, a tenth idea, this time from the very leader of the Muses, Apollo himself. To expect bad men never to do bad things is just madness; it’s asking the impossible. And to let them abuse other people, and expect them to leave you alone, that is arrogance.