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 “enemies”, 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.

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 “living in agreement with Nature”.  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 “the life in agreement with nature” (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 “agreement” 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’re 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’re 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 “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity.  Diogenes writes: “By 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.”  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 “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.”  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 “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, 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 “living in agreement”, 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’t “flutter” 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’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.

Oikeiôsis 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 oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics.  It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”.  It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household.  Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”.  However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification.  Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation.  According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see.  As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis 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’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (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 “familial affection”, 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 “household”.  (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 “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.

For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin.  The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” 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 “brother” or “sister” 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 “brother”.  When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (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’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection.  As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re 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 “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” 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 oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.

However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis 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’re 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’d 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 oikeiôsis that operates within the individual.  On the other hand, we’re 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 oikeiôsis 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’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness.  For the Stoics, this means also that we’re 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 “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language.  Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.

Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world.  That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature.  In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s 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’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re 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
Temperance
World Physics Fear and
Desire

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.

Stoicon 2017: Modern Stoicism Conference

Program for Stoicon 2017 Modern Stoicism conference in Toronto.

Stoicon is an annual international conference on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life, organized by Modern Stoicism.  It’s now in its fourth year.  Stoicon 2017 is scheduled for Saturday 14th October, and will take place in Toronto, Canada.  The annual Stoic Week online course will begin the following Monday, running from 16th – 22nd October.  If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you.  Modern Stoicism’s aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

Stoicon 2017

It opens this year with a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy followed by a series of talks by leading authors in the field of modern Stoicism.  In the afternoon, you will be able to choose between attending different parallel sessions, including an introductory workshop for newcomers to applied Stoicism.  The day concludes with the keynote presentation on Stoicism and Emotion by one of the leading experts in this area, Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College.

Theme: Stoicism at Work

Date/Time: Saturday 14th October 2017

Location: Toronto.  Holiday Inn, Yorkdale.

Contact: Email Modern Stoicism

Booking: Tickets can be booked online via EventBrite.

Stoic Sunday in Toronto events to be scheduled…

Full Schedule

8 – 9am Registration and coffee

Plenary Sessions

  • 9am Introduction: What is Stoicism?
    Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
  • 9.30am How to be a Stoic: Conversations with Epictetus
    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic
  • 10am The Stoic Minimalist: Practicing Stoicism, Avoiding Controversies
    Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.30am Morning break (30 min.)

  • 11am Stoicism, Buddhism, and Judaism
    Dr. Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles
  • 11.30am TBC
  • 12pm Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
    Dr. Walter Matweychuk, author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
  • 12.30pm Stoicism and Sport
    Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

1 – 2.30pm Lunch break

2.30 – 4pm Parallel Talks & Workshops

  • Stoicism and Values Clarification (Workshop)
    Prof. Christopher Gill, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought
    Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy
  • Stoicism and Creativity (Talk)
    Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
  • Stoic Perspectives on Leisure, Work, Duty, Discipline, and Vocation (Talk)
    Stephen Hanselman, author of The Daily Stoic
  • Stoicism and Military Resilience (Workshop)
    Col. Thomas Jarrett, developer of Warrior Resilience Training
  • Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies (Workshop)
    Dr. Greg Sadler & Andi Sciacca, of ReasonIO
  • Introduction to Stoic Psychological Skills (Workshop)
    Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 – 4.30pm Afternoon break

4.30 – 5.15pm Keynote: Stoicism & Emotion
Prof. Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion

5.15 – 5.30pm Closing

5.30 – 7pm Reception

For more information subscribe to this blog, follow Modern Stoicism on Twitter, or Facebook.

Check for discounts and book your ticket online now via EventBrite.

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

Marcus Aurelius and the Civil War in the East

Biographical fiction recounting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the Eastern Provinces, against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the way Marcus may have responded by using Stoic psychological exercises, philosophical doctrines, and the therapy of the passions.

Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life.  Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.

Prologue

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:

Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?

Marcus AureliusSlowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?

He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions.  This is how he prepares for life.

Cassius in Egypt

May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.

In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacared them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.

Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.

The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him.  They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule.  However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.”  His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity.  Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.

Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.

In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.

These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.

The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.

Marcus in Pannonia

At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”

The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.

Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so.  That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control.  Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.

Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.

Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time.  The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.

After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…

For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:

If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]

This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else.  Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.

At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.

In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:

If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)

Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly.  Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.

Marcus Announces the Civil War

Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, bassed on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side.  Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.

Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.

However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.

Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.

After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.

Marcus’ Meditations

Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.

When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.

It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]

As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.

Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]

He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.

All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to.  If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.

But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus talks himself through this.  When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.

The March South & Cassius’ Death

Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper.  Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.

However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge.  The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.

One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.

Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Bithynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.

Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.

The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.

Epilogue

Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.

We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.

Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.

Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life.  Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.

We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice.  Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him.  Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”

What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice?  A familiar sight enough.  So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’  Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.  (Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”  In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone.  (Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.”  But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.  However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case.  Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where.  For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught.  (Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?”  But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

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

The Daily Stoic Cover

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

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

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

Now Available: Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

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

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

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

Stoicism Defends Itself (Draft)

This article provides an overview of some common criticisms of Stoic philosophy and sketches some initial responses.

[This is just a first draft so don’t worry too much if there are some typos or bits you don’t agree with — I’ll probably just change it later!]Brace Yourselves Meme

When people first begin studying Stoicism it’s inevitably not long before they encounter debate involving various criticisms of the philosophy.  All of these criticisms are, in a sense, legitimate.  Of course, it’s natural and healthy for us to engage in these sort of philosophical discussions, especially if we can shed some light on things for ourselves or others.  However, the majority of these criticisms – at least the ones I’ve heard over the past ten or fifteen years – tend to be based upon simple misconceptions about Stoicism, which can be answered fairly easily if we take the time to do so.  I’ve therefore chosen to try to summarise the main arguments in one article and to provide an overview of them and the way I’d normally tend to reply.  I don’t really have space here to go into all of these matters in a great deal of depth – so some people are bound to find my replies insufficient as they stand – but I think the brief comments below may provide a good indication of some ways to answer the criticisms I’m talking about and I’m sure others can develop them further.

In the Beginning was the Word

The most common source of misconceptions about Stoicism is simply the word itself.  “Stoicism” is a homonym: it sounds identical, and is spelt the same, as another word, which nevertheless means something fundamentally quite different.  There are two different things called by this name, in other words.  The difference is usually indicated by capitalisation.

  1. The word “Stoicism” with a capital “S” refers to an ancient Greek school of philosophy, defined by its central ethical tenet: that “virtue” (or excellence of character) is the only true good.
  2. The word “stoicism” with a small “s” is a modern expression, referring to a personality trait, which involves calmness in the face of adversity but is also often taken to imply a lack of emotion in general.

Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that both things are called by the same name.  The personality trait is named “stoicism” because of the ancient school of philosophy.  However, the relationship between these concepts is tenuous and quite problematic.  

The ancient philosophical school of Stoicism does not, in fact, advocate being “stoic”, in the sense of being unemotional, as we shall see.  It’s also misleading because people talk about having a naturally “stoic” temperament whereas “Stoicism” consists of a philosophical world-view and set of values.  Someone may have a “stoic” personality but hold completely different beliefs from someone who is “Stoic” in the philosophical sense of the word.  In particular, people today often describe someone as “stoic” who believes that something genuinely bad has happened to them, perhaps bankruptcy or divorce, but keeps a “stiff upper-lip” despite their upset.  That person would not be a “Stoic” in the philosophical sense, though, because, as we’ll see, although he may rationally “prefer” not to be bankrupt or divorced, a Stoic philosopher would not judge these things to be intrinsically bad to begin with.

Philosophy, what Philosophy?

By far the most popular and widely-read book on Stoicism is The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  It’s a wonderful book and represents Marcus’ attempts to train himself in Stoic practices, while recording his maxims and reflections in the form of a contemplative journal.  However, it’s therefore not a systematic treatise on Stoic philosophy.  Because Marcus was writing for himself, in a kind of aphoristic style, he did not generally take time to make his philosophical assumptions explicit.  Nevertheless, Stoicism was famous in the ancient world for its highly systematic nature.  Scholars who are familiar with the doctrines and arguments of Stoic philosophy, and its technical terminology, easily spot that Marcus is working within that system.  However, for most readers this is simply not apparent and so I’ve heard intelligent people say that Marcus was just writing down his “random musings” and nothing more.  For that reason, many individuals, having read only The Meditations and not any other Stoic texts or modern commentaries, naturally tend to assume that Stoicism is a loosely-defined set of ideas.  The opposite is the case, though.  

Stoicism is a tightly-integrated, formal, philosophical system.  It was founded in 301 BC in Athens by Zeno of Citium and Marcus, who happens to be pretty much the last famous Stoic we find in history, died in 180 AD.  So the Stoic school of philosophy survived for almost 500 years, half a millennium, as a living, practical and theoretical tradition.  Thousands of books were apparently written on Stoicism in the ancient world, although less than 1% of that literature survives today.  Zeno himself was known for the “laconic” brevity of both his sayings and arguments.  However, Chrysippus, the third head (“scholarch”) of the Stoic school, engaged in much more elaborate philosophical arguments than Zeno and supposedly wrote over 700 books (although perhaps short books, more like essays).  I suspect that he probably felt that it was necessary to elaborate upon the doctrines of the school in this way in order to defend them against equally elaborate criticisms of Stoicism, which were taught and published by philosophers aligned with other schools of philosophy, particularly the Skeptics of the Platonic Academy.  In any case, Stoicism was always renowned as a highly sophisticated and coherent system of philosophy, with a complex technical vocabulary and an extensive armamentarium of practical psychological strategies at its disposal.  Criticisms often fail to take account of that by interpreting passages in isolation, without reference to the rest of the philosophical framework on which individual ideas or practices depend.

Why Just Pick on the Stoics?

Another common pattern that emerges when we look at criticisms of Stoicism is that they’re often, on closer inspection, highly skeptical arguments, of a very broad nature.  They would would apply much more generally than their author is letting on.  For example, a speaker at our 2015 conference on Stoicism forwarded the criticism that Stoic practices should not be taught in schools because they could be exploited to make children take on excessive responsibility for their emotional distress, and thereby disguise the role of the environment and socio-political factors.  However, it seems to me that this argument does not specifically apply to Stoicism but to more or less any form of resilience-building or psychological self-improvement whatsoever.  It’s much less tempting accept such an argument when we realise its scope extends so widely.  

Likewise, as we’ll see below, Stoicism is also often criticised because its ethical doctrines can’t be conclusively proven with either philosophical or empirical arguments.  However, that’s also true of ethics in general, including ethical doctrines based on Christian, Buddhist, Marxist, humanist, and all other religions and philosophies.  Of course, just noticing this problem with the criticism isn’t sufficient to answer the criticism.  However, for many people, it does weaken its appeal somewhat.  It’s also often the case that criticisms of Stoicism are so general in scope that they would undermine beliefs that the speaker is already committed to holding themselves, leaving them in a position of self-contradiction, although this may not be apparent at first glance.  

Many of the criticisms of Stoicism that I’ve heard try to argue that it can’t be healthy or effective psychologically, on the basis of some objection to the cognitive theory of emotions.  However, cognitive-behavioural therapy is based on a very similar model of emotion and employs similar strategies.  CBT has proven its effectiveness in many hundreds of highly-sophisticated clinical trials.  The fact that it’s safe and beneficial, overall for a range of conditions, is pretty much beyond reasonable doubt now.  Yet sometimes criticisms of Stoicism ignore this overlap and, in certain cases, if we took them seriously they should lead us to discount something that we know works, from empirical evidence, which would be an absurd conclusion.  Questions about the effectiveness of Stoic strategies as a therapy for the emotions can only be settled by consulting relevant scientific evidence because it’s an empirical question, not a purely philosophical one.  Armchair discussions about the effectiveness of therapies should set our alarm bells ringing.  This kind of idle speculation is surprisingly common, though.  It’s more obvious that these arguments are vacuous if we consider how they would fare in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy rather than just Stoic therapy.

The Unproven Ethics of Stoicism

As mentioned above, one of the most common criticisms of Stoicism is that its ethical doctrines cannot be philosophically proven.  Although the ancient Stoics believed that they could provide rigorous proofs of their main conclusions, and defend them against radical ethical skepticism, we’re told they were mistaken.  Now, funnily enough, there’s undoubtedly some validity to this criticism.  However, it has to be understood in the following context: no philosophical or non-philosophical system of ethics has ever provided a conclusive proof of its doctrines.  So this extremely-skeptical criticism would apply not just to Stoicism but to ethics in general, and often to ethical assumptions held by the person making the criticism.  Even if the ethics of Stoicism can’t be proven conclusively, many people obviously feel that it can be shown to be consistent with their own deepest ethical convictions, on reflection, and to lead to a coherent ethical world-view.  That’s often enough for them and is arguably all that we can ask for in terms of a philosophical justification for ethics.  

It’s sometimes also claimed that Stoic Ethics depends on the assumption that a provident God exists and that without this premise, which many modern readers reject, its ethical system loses its foundation.  However, as we’ll see below, the Stoics were pantheists who believed in a “philosophers’’ god”, radically different from the Zeus of Greek mythology or the Judeo-Christian Jehovah.  The Stoics were also materialists of a sort and their God is synonymous with Nature as a whole.   Many people who reject the idea of the Christian God or the supernatural beings described in Greek mythology (assuming we take it literally) would be more willing to accept the notion that Nature as a whole can be viewed as an active process, from which certain values might somehow be derived.  The main issue at stake is whether Nature can be viewed in teleological terms, as having some kind of ideal or goal, in reference to  which other values could be established.  Although that’s a view that many people reject in theory, it’s worth noting that most people in their daily lives act as if they were committed to the assumption that things naturally have an optimum or ideal state.  For example, we would find it very difficult to suspend any thinking that employs the concept of something (ourselves and other people included) being “helped” or “harmed” by events.  However, that way of talking, thinking, and acting arguably betrays the fact that we’re already committed to a world-view in which there’s a desirable state that things “should” be allowed to be in.  Of course, the Stoics would argue that we’re all wrong to think that physical injury, financial loss, and attacks on our reputation are genuinely “harmful” but I believe that’s an easier step to take than trying to argue against the extreme form of skepticism that denies the possibility of any meaningful goal in nature whatsoever.  To put it another way: although this type of ethical skepticism might seem difficult to counter, I don’t think many people are really able to view the world that way in practice anyway.  For the Stoics, Nature’s goal for man is “virtue”, for him to excel and flourish in his use of practical reason.  So very simply: virtue helps him and vice harms him: everything else is “indifferent” in this regard.

Moreover, the Stoics actually seldom appeal to theological premises, about the existence or nature of God, in order to justify their ethical conclusions anyway.  They forward many other lines of argument to support their central claim that the supreme goal of life is virtue, or excellence of character.  (Not just because Zeus wills it.)  For instance, to take just one example, they argue that to judge something “good” is to desire it, and that it makes no sense to desire something that is not under our control, therefore the good must reside in some quality of our own voluntary actions, and good actions are what we mean by virtue.  (To be fair this proto-Kantian argument – “should entails can” – isn’t very explicit but I believe the Stoics allude to it and it’s easy to see how it would be consistent with their surviving remarks.)  They also argue that on reflection we tend to praise and admire other people not for their possessions but for the character of their voluntary actions, for “virtues” or good qualities such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline, and it would be inconsistent or hypocritical of us not to value and desire the same thing (virtue) for ourselves.  Whatever we make of these and other Stoic Ethical arguments, it’s simply not true that, in any obvious sense, they require us to agree with archaic metaphysical or theological assumptions.  I believe we could make the same sort of arguments today, from the perspective of modern scientific atheism or agnosticism, and defend them with additional arguments drawn from that world-view, without contradicting Stoicism’s central doctrines.  

Stoics Have Feelings Too

Many people mistakenly assume that Stoics seek to “repress”, “suppress”, or “eliminate” all of their emotions.  Sometimes this is described as the assumption that Stoics are like the character Mr. Spock from Star Trek, or that they are unemotional like a “cold fish”.  To be fair, even some highly-regarded academic scholars have, in the past, argued that Stoicism teaches the “extirpation” (uprooting and elimination) of all emotions.  However, I think few experts on Stoicism today would accept that interpretation.  First of all, it’s difficult to imagine why Stoicism would have been so successful in appealing to so many different people, for so many hundreds of years, if what it taught us was that we should eliminate all of our feelings, even the pleasant and seemingly healthy ones.  Also, much of our emotional life is not entirely “up to us”, and battling “stoically” against our automatic emotional reactions is bound to seem totally contrary to the well-known Stoic teaching that we should focus on changing things we control while accepting that some things are not within our power.

Moreover, it should probably be explained that the Stoics don’t even use a word that could be translated, unequivocally, by the English word “emotion”.  They talk mainly about “passions” (pathê), a technical term that has a very specific meaning in their philosophical system.  Passions were defined as both desires and emotions, which are “irrational”, “excessive”, and “unnatural” (in the sense of being unhealthy).  These “passions” are also intended to be voluntary: we implicitly choose to indulge in them and perpetuate them.  So the Stoics primarily advise us to stop going along with them.  It’s also important to explain that for Stoics there is no real division between reason and the passions, or emotions.  It was Plato’s doctrine that reason and the emotions are two fundamentally separate parts or faculties of the mind, and the Stoics criticised and totally rejected that assumption.  The emotion of fear, for example, consists of certain anxious feelings, but it also necessarily entails the judgement that something bad or harmful is about to happen, otherwise it just wouldn’t be fear.  

When people talk about “repressing” or “suppressing” emotions – two terms which, incidentally, mean very different things – they usually have a vague idea in mind, of forcefully eliminating the feelings or sensations, without changing the beliefs associated with them.  So someone who suppresses fear would perhaps be trying to relax their muscles, slow their breathing, act outwardly courageous, and block the feelings of anxiety from their mind, while still believing that something bad is about to happen.  Someone who does not believe that something bad is about to happen, probably won’t have any need to suppress their feelings in this way, though.  It doesn’t really make sense to talk about repressing or suppressing anxious feelings when the fearful belief has gone, and (under normal circumstances) anxiety abates naturally as a result.  That’s what the Stoics meant, though: changing the belief rather than merely suppressing the feelings.  They also don’t mean simply forcing the belief to change but rather they argued that the beliefs underlying unhealthy passions are false, and that we should change them by thinking things through philosophically until we actually realise that they are mistaken.  For instance, the Stoics don’t tell us to try to suppress our anxiety about death.  Rather they argue, on the basis of their philosophy, that death is not intrinsically bad, or evil.  (For example, some people may choose euthanasia, in extreme circumstances such as severe illness, which suggests that death is not perceived by them as worse than the prospect of an unpleasant future life.)  

Moreover, the Stoics explicitly stated that their philosophy contained a systematic model, which distinguishes between three categories of passion (or desires and emotions):

  1. “Passions” (pathê), which are irrational, excessive, unhealthy, and voluntarily perpetuated by us
  2. “Proto-passions” (propatheiai), which are the involuntary or reflex-like precursors of full-blown passions (desires and emotions), and the Stoics name examples such as shaking, sweating, being startled, stammering, blushing, etc.
  3. “Good passions” (eupatheiai), which are rational, moderate, healthy, and voluntary passions, which “supervene” upon wisdom and virtue, because they are the consequences of holding true beliefs about what is good, bad, and indifferent in our lives

The “good passions”, experienced by the Stoic Sage, or the “wise and good” person, are things like joy (happiness) about our own good qualities (virtues) or those of others, desire for ourselves and others to flourish and become better people, fate permitting, and a healthy concern about the possibility of falling into foolishness or vicious attitudes and behaviour.  That’s right, the Stoic ideal consists of feeling abundant joy!  It also consists of a kindly and benevolent attitude, which the Stoics describe as being like a gentle friendship felt toward our own selves, and the rest of mankind.  Indeed, Stoic Ethics is based on the idea that humans naturally tend to experience an instinct called “natural affection” (philostorgia) for our own offspring, and family.  The wise man gradually extends this into brotherly-love for all mankind, a kind of philanthropic attitude, linked to what we call Stoic “cosmopolitanism”, seeing all human beings as fundamentally brothers and sisters, and part of the same global community.  Marcus Aurelius described this very succinctly, in a way that obviously contradicts the “cold fish” misconception about Stoicism, when he said that the Stoic ideal is to be “free from the [irrational, unhealthy] passions, and yet full of love.”

Zeus, the Philosophers’ “God”

The ancient Stoics, particularly Epictetus, frequently refer to the Greek god Zeus in very religiously-devout-sounding language.  (Sometimes they refer to him under other names, such as “God” or “Jupiter”, or to other Greek or Roman deities.)  This leads many modern readers to assume that the ancient Stoics require us to “believe in God” in order to share in their philosophy, and if they happen to be atheists or agnostics, as many people are today, that can be somewhat off-putting.  However, the Stoics were renowned for basing their philosophy on concepts that radically revised the values and assumptions prevalent in their society.  They followed their predecessors the Cynics, and other philosophers, in doing this, and it is known as philosophical paradox, which literally means not just something puzzling but specifically something “contrary to (popular) opinion”.  The prevalent opinion about the gods, the opinion held by of the majority of ancient Greeks, was that they were literally the sort of characters described in the myths: supernatural beings, with human-like personalities and emotions, etc.  However, the Stoics held a completely different view, which so challenged popular theology that throughout history they – and philosophers like them, such as Spinoza – were frequently accused of being atheists by Christians and other theists.

The Stoics were pantheists of sorts (or “panentheists”) who believed that the whole of Nature is divine, and so they referred to the whole of Nature as “Zeus”.  They were also materialists of sorts (or “corporealists”) who utterly rejected the notion of any metaphysical realm beyond the physical universe, such as Plato’s theory of forms.  They are believed to have largely assimilated the philosophy of Nature taught by the famously paradoxical and cryptic pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.  In typically equivocal style, Heraclitus taught that Nature is “both willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus”.  I would say that if we asked Heraclitus whether “Nature” was the same thing as “Zeus” or “God”, he would reply: “yes and no”.  Moreover, I think that his successors the Stoics, if pressed on this question, would also give the same reply.  The Stoics were renowned in the ancient world for their attempts to reinterpret Greek myths allegorically, usually as metaphors for natural elements and processes.  For example, for the Stoics, Zeus is not literally a supernatural being, resembling a bearded man who hurls bolts of lightning from atop Mount Olympus.  Rather the myth of “Zeus” is a metaphor for the natural “fire”, the force or energy, that animates the whole of the physical universe, or it is Nature viewed as an active process.  

In his Republic, probably the founding text or original manifesto of Stoicism, Zeno reputedly described “as if in a dream”, a utopian vision of the ideal philosophical society.  In it there would be no shrines or temples.  The Pharsalia, a much later epic poem written by Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic Lucan, contains a scene in which the great Stoic hero of the Roman Republic, Cato of Utica, is advised by one of his officers to consult the priests in a temple to Zeus, and seek their prophesy about the outcome of an impending battle with the legions of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  However, Cato says no.  He basically says that Stoics don’t really believe in temples, or prophecies, of this kind.  Zeus is Nature, therefore he is present everywhere, and there are not really any special buildings in which he lives, and no special individuals (priests or prophets) through whom he speaks.  Nature runs through everything including the human mind, and so Cato looks deep within his own soul to commune with the divine by contacting his own deepest convictions and instincts and there he finds the doctrine of Stoicism that says whatever fate befalls us, all that truly matters is that we handle it virtuously, with wisdom and integrity.  He doesn’t need a priest to tell him that.  So we’re told he turned his back on the temple and walked away without even bothering to go inside.  The Stoic “Zeus” is Nature, and Nature has no use for temples or churches, scriptures and rituals, or priests and prophets.  Epictetus tells us that although Stoics might pray, they did not pray as the majority did.  They didn’t petition the gods for favours.  They didn’t pray for Zeus to bring rain for crops, or victory in battle, but rather they prayed for only one thing: to find wisdom within themselves and thereby to flourish as human beings.

This concept of a “sort-of” God – both willing and unwilling to be dubbed “Zeus” – is sometimes called the “philosophers’ God” and it’s so radically different from what most people mean by “God” that many agnostics or atheists may actually find it entirely acceptable – or at least, more acceptable – to their world-view.  Indeed, pantheism in general has often been viewed as a spiritual view which comes across as much more palatable than religions such as Christianity or Islam do to modern, scientifically and skeptically-inclined, individuals.  The physicist Albert Einstein, for example, said that he could not believe in the God of Christianity or Judaism but that he preferred to believe in the God that Spinoza described as “Deus sive Natura”, which basically means “God” as a synonym for the unfolding process of Nature as a whole.  This pantheistic God advocated by Einstein and Spinoza is therefore very similar to the Zeus of the Stoics.

Stoics Prefer Things; Cynics Don’t

Another common group of criticisms about Stoicism have to do with the claim that it treats all external things as totally indifferent, and that Stoics have no desire to change anything whatsoever in the world.  This takes various forms but it’s often allied with the claim that Stoics passively accept bad personal, political, or social situations, which most people would think we have an obligation to try to change.  The first thing to say in response to this is that as a matter of historical fact, the Stoic school was always particularly renowned for advocating political involvement among its followers.  For example, Zeno had King Antigonus of Macedonia, the most powerful military and political leader in the region, as a student and presumably discussed ethical doctrines with him that would have implications for the way he ruled.  Antigonus pleaded with Zeno to travel to his court and become his advisor but by that time he was an elderly man and somewhat too frail for the upheaval this would involve so he sent one of his finest students, Persaeus, instead, and we learn that he was put in charge of the city of Corinth and later died in battle commanding the garrison during its defence against Antigonus’ enemies.  

Likewise, the great Stoic hero Cato of Utica was famous for his political stubbornness and unflinching opposition to the rise of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Seneca’ nephew, Lucan’s epic poem, Pharsalia, describes Cato’s involvement in the Roman Civil War in heroic terms, particularly the scene where he finally takes command of the shattered remnants of the Republican army and marches them through the deserts of North Africa to make their last stand against Caesar’s legions at the fortified city of Utica.  Cato was not a doormat, in other words.  He was held up throughout Roman society as an exemplar of the Stoic virtues of courage and self-discipline, in the face of extreme adversity.  We might also point to (today) the most famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who also led a broken Roman army, weakened by plague, in a desperate but successful attempt to drive back invading barbarians hordes.  We’re told Marcus took emergency measures, which shocked the populace, such as conscripting gladiators into the army, and selling off many of his own treasures from the imperial palace to help fund the war effort.  Stoicism clearly did not lead him to sit back and twiddle his thumbs in passive resignation while the Marcomanni hordes overran and looted Roman cities.  If he’d lost that campaign and Rome had fallen, the world as we know it today would not exist.  He took to the battlefield and we’re told the legions under his command especially loved and revered him – the soldiers reputedly wept when his death was announced.  These were, therefore, all clearly men of action – exceptionally so.

So how is it possible for so many people to get the opposite idea: that Stoicism teaches us to be overly-passive or submissive?  This misconception basically stems from a tendency to confuse it with its precursor, the philosophy of Cynicism.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was originally a student of the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes.  For many years, therefore, Zeno was a Cynic but he founded the Stoic school, after training in philosophy for about twenty years, because he became dissatisfied with Cynicism and the other Socratic schools in Athens.  The Cynics believed that virtue is the only true good, vice is the only true evil, and that everything else is totally indifferent with regard to the goal of life.  Zeno and his Stoic students accepted this view but they also felt it was necessary to make a fundamental change to it.  So Zeno introduced an innovative concept which became known as the central and most characteristic teaching of the Stoic school: the doctrine of “preferred indifferents”.  This teaching says very simply that although the Cynics were right that only virtue can be considered “good” (and vice “bad”) in the strictest sense of the word, it is nevertheless necessary for the wise man to distinguish between external things that he “prefers” to get or to avoid.  

The Stoics provide very clear lists of these things.  For example, physical health, wealth, and good social standing, are “preferred”, and their opposites are “dispreferred” – it’s perfectly rational for the Stoic to prefer not to become ill, impoverished, or to be condemned or exiled.  When the Stoics describe these things as “indifferent” they mean that they’re of no relevance when it comes to the good life.  Socrates may have been starting to age, relatively poor, and condemned to death by unjust accusers and the Athenian court but he nevertheless lived a good life, an exceptionally better life in fact than the majority of other people, because he dealt with such adversity wisely and with courage.  The Stoics would say that his poverty did not actually make his life any worse but rather, if anything, it actually gave him more opportunity to exercise his virtues and strength of character, and to flourish as a wise and good man.  Despite this particular sense in which they lack value, though, some externals are considered to be naturally preferable over others and wisdom consists in choosing prudently between them, without compromising our virtues.  Chrysippus reputedly summed this up by saying, to paraphrase him somewhat, that to the Stoic Sage it’s ultimately indifferent whether or not he’s able to have a bath, because it won’t make him any more or less enlightened, but that given the opportunity, he would certainly prefer to be able to wash when he’s dirty.  

It’s perfectly natural and rational therefore for Stoics to continue to seek certain “preferred” things in life, and it would be foolish for them not to do so.  This perhaps involves an element of speculation on my part but, personally, I suspect that in the Republic, when Zeno described the ideal Stoic society, what he said was that this is the ultimate external goal of the wise man, the highest preferred indifferent, which he would presumably have to pursue with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  In other words, the wise man only rates his wellbeing in terms of attaining wisdom and virtue but his practical actions aim toward improving the world and the lives of other people, by spreading wisdom and virtue among them.  Zeno himself did this, for example, by lecturing in public, at the Stoa Poekile, where anyone could come and hear him speak, and by writing books intended to help others improve, even after his death.  Antigonus, Cato, and Marcus, would not have wrestled with the world of politics, or risked their lives on the field of battle, and Zeno and the other Stoic scholarchs would not have dedicated their lives to teaching and writing books if they did not believe that it was worthwhile trying to change the world in a way that seemed definitely “preferable” to them, and it would be better for them even to try and fail in doing so than never to have tried at all.