The System of Stoic Philosophy

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite division of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, their subdivisions, etc.

The System of Stoic Philosophy


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

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite classification of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, and their subdivisions, etc., as reputedly described by the primary sources.¬† It’s still a work in progress, see please feel free to post comments or corrections.

The Parts of Philosophy

From Diogenes Laertius (7.38-41)

Zeno introduced the tripartite division of philosophy in his book On Rational Discourse.  Whereas some Stoics say the three parts of philosophy are mixed and taught together, Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, put them in the following order:

  1. Logic
  2. Physics
  3. Ethics

However, Plutarch says that Chrysippus thought the parts should be studied as follows (Early Stoics, p. 9):

  1. Logic
  2. Ethics
  3. Physics (and theology)

(Later, Epictetus said that the Discipline of Assent, which is linked to logic, should be studied last, as it is important to master the other aspects of Stoicism first.)

Cleanthes divided philosophy into six parts, however.

  1. Dialectic
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Ethics
  4. Politics
  5. Physics
  6. Theology

Several metaphors are used in conjunction with this tripartite division of philosophy.  They appear to differ in terms of whether physics or logic is made central, but logic is perhaps consistently described as providing stability and structure.  For example, philosophy is like an animal:

  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The fleshier parts
  • Physics = The soul

Philosophy is like an egg:

  • Logic = The shell
  • Ethics = The egg white
  • Physics = The yolk

Philosophy is like a productive field:

  • Logic = The surrounding wall
  • Ethics = The fruit
  • Physics = The land and trees

Philosophy is also like a city “which is beautifully fortified and administered according to reason.”¬† According to Sextus Empiricus, Posidonius compared philosophy to an animal, as follows (Stoic Reader, p. 9):

  • Physics = The flesh and blood
  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The soul

Ethics & The Virtues

From Diogenes Laertius (7.84-131).

The early Stoics define “the good” as encompassing three senses:

  1. The most fundamental sense is that through which it is possible to be benefitted, which corresponds mainly to the virtues
  2. In addition, the good includes that according to which being benefitted is a typical result, which refers both to the virtues and to specific virtuous actions
  3. Finally, the good includes that which is such as to benefit, namely the Wise man himself, true friends, and the gods, who engage in virtuous actions and possess the virtues

Praiseworthy men are often referred to as “good and honourable” in ancient Greek literature.¬† Hence, the good in Stoicism is described as being synonymous with what is both beneficial and honourable (or praiseworthy).¬†¬†Alternatively, Diogenes Laertius gives the following list of synonyms for the perfect good, according to the early Stoics all good (agathon) is inherently:

  • Advantageous or expedient (sumpheron), ‚Äúbecause it brings [instrumentally] such things as we are benefitted by when they occur‚ÄĚ
  • Morally binding, a duty¬†(deon), ‚Äúbecause it holds together in cases where this is needed‚ÄĚ
  • Profitable, repaying more than was expended¬†(lusiteles), ‚Äúbecause it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort‚ÄĚ
  • Useful for things (chreisimon), ‚Äúbecause it makes available the use of a benefit‚ÄĚ
  • Well-used or artfully-used (euchr√™ston), ‚Äúbecause it renders the use of it praiseworthy‚ÄĚ (by contrast, the indifferents can be used either well or badly)
  • Honourable or beautiful (kalon), ‚Äúbecause it is symmetrical with its own use‚ÄĚ also ‚Äúbecause it has all the features sought by nature or because it is perfectly symmetrical‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe honourable uniquely means that which makes those who possess it praiseworthy”
  • Beneficial (√īphelimon), ‚Äúbecause it is such as to benefit‚ÄĚ
  • Worth choosing or to be chosen (haireton), ‚Äúbecause it is such that it is reasonable to choose it‚ÄĚ
  • Just (dikaion), ‚Äúbecause it is consonant with law and instrumental to a sense of community‚ÄĚ

Some of these terms are central to Stoic ethical theory.

Although Zeno and Cleanthes did not divide things in such detail, the followers of Chrysippus and others Stoics classify the sub-divisions of ethics as follows:

  1. On impulse
  2. On good and bad things
  3. On passions
  4. On virtue
  5. On the goal
  6. On primary value
  7. On actions
  8. On appropriate actions
  9. On encouragements and discouragements to action

Diogenes Laertius¬†says that whereas Panaetius¬†divided virtues into two kinds (theoretical and practical), other Stoics divided the virtues into logical, ethical and physical.¬† According to Aetius also, there are three categories of virtue, which correspond with the three divisions of philosophy: physics, ethics, and logic¬†(Stoic Reader, p. 9).¬† He doesn’t say what these virtues are, but we might speculate:

  1. Physics = Self-Control (Courage & Moderation, two of the cardinal virtues)
  2. Ethics = Justice
  3. Logics = Wisdom (or Prudence)

Panaetius, anyway, says that there are two [kinds of] virtues, theoretical and practical; others [divide virtue into] logical, physical, and ethical.¬† Posidonious’ followers [say there are] four, and those of Cleanthes and Chrysippus and Antipater [say there are even] more.¬† But Apollophanes¬†says there is one virtue, namely, prudence. (Diogenes Laertius, in Early Stoics, p. 115)

Although Chryssipus and other Stoics claimed that all virtues are essentially one, most Stoics appear to have agreed that there are four “primary” virtues, common to other ancient schools of philosophy:

  1. Prudence or Practical Wisdom (Phronesis), sometimes just called Wisdom (Sophia), which opposes the vice of “ignorance”
  2. Justice or Integrity (Dikaiosune), which opposes the vice of “injustice”
  3. Fortitude or Courage (Andreia), which opposes the vice of “cowardice”
  4. Temperance or Moderation (Sophrosune), which opposes the vice of “wantonness”

These are defined as forms of knowledge (q.v., Stobaeus in Early Stoics, p. 125-130):

  1. Prudence is knowledge of which things are good, bad, and neither; or “appropriate acts”.
  2. Temperance is knowledge of which things are to be chosen, avoided, and neither; or¬†stable “human impulses”.
  3. Justice is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person; or fair “distributions”.
  4. Courage is knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither; or “standing firm”.

The cardinal virtues are also sub-divided as follows:

  1. Prudence takes the form of deliberative excellence, good calculation, quick-wittedness, good sense, good sense of purpose, and resourcefulness.
  2. Temperance takes the form of organisation, orderliness, modesty, and self-control.
  3. Justice takes the form of piety, good-heartedness, public spiritedness, and fair dealing.
  4. Courage takes the form of endurance, confidence, great-heartedness, stout-heartedness, and love of work.

Diogenes Laertius also says that Chrysippus and others sub-divide the virtues as follows:

  1. Prudence primarily takes the form of good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis)
  2. Temperance primarily takes the form of good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês)
  3. Justice primarily takes the form of impartiality/fairness (isot√™s) and¬†kindness (eugn√īmosun√™)
  4. Courage primarily takes the form of constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia)

A famous slogan of Epictetus, anechou¬†kai apechou,¬†is usually translated as “bear and forbear” or “endure and renounce”.¬† According to Gellius:

The same Epictetus […] was in the habit of saying that there were two vices which are far more severe and atrocious than all others, want of endurance and want of self-control, when we do not endure or bear the wrongs¬†which we have to¬†bear, or do not abstain from, or forbear, those matters and pleasures which we out to forbear.¬† “And so,” he says, “if a man should take to heart these two words and observe them in controlling and keeping watch over himself, he will, for the most part, be free from wrongdoing, and will live a highly peaceful life.”¬† These two words, he used to say, were anechou and apechou.

This can perhaps be seen to correlate with the two virtues relating to self-control in the broad sense: courage and temperance.¬† It’s possible that these two complementary virtues both correspond somehow with the discipline of Stoic physics and with the passions, as follows:

  1. Endure (bear), through the virtue of courage, whatever irrational pain or suffering would otherwise be feared and avoided
  2. Renounce (forbear), through the virtue of temperance (or moderation), whatever irrational pleasures would otherwise be desired and pursued

Diogenes Laertius also mentions several additional Stoic virtues: magnanimity (megalopsuchia), self-control (enkrateia), patience/endurance (karteria), presence of mind (anchinoia), and good counsel (euboulia).

According to Chrysippus and other Stoics, the main examples of indifferent things, being neither good nor bad, are listed as pairs of opposites (Diogenes Laertius, 7.102):

  1. Life and death
  2. Health and disease
  3. Pleasure and pain
  4. Beauty and ugliness
  5. Strength and weakness
  6. Wealth and poverty
  7. Good reputation and bad reputation
  8. Noble birth and low birth
  9. …and other such things.

The Irrational Passions

According to Zeno, the passions are defined as essentially voluntary responses, which can be described as (Diogenes Laertius, 7.109):

  1. Irrational (alogos) judgements
  2. Unnatural (para phusin) movements of the soul
  3. Excessive impulses (hormê pleonazousa)

According to Zeno, the most general division of these irrational passions is into four categories:

  1. Pain or suffering (lup√™), an “irrational contraction” of the soul, over the failure to avoid something judged bad or to obtain something judged good
  2. Fear (phobos), the (irrational) “expectation of something bad”
  3. Craving (epithumia), an “irrational striving” for something judged to be good
  4. Pleasure (h√™don√™), an “irrational elation over what seems to be worth choosing”, i.e., what is judged¬†good

These can be subdivided as follows (following Diogenes Laertius but also Stobaeus, in Stoic Reader, pp. 138-139):

  1. Pain can take the form of pity, grudging, envy, resentment, heavyheartedness, congestion, sorrow, anguish, or confusion.  Or according to Stobaeus, envy, grudging, resentment, pity, grief, heavyheartedness, distress, sorrow, anguish, and vexation.
  2. Fear can take the form of dread, hesitation, shame, shock, panic, or agony.  Or according to Stobaeus, hesitation, agony, shock, shame, panic, superstition, fright, and dread.
  3. Craving can take the form of want, hatred, quarrelsomeness, anger, sexual love, wrath, or spiritedness.  Or according to Stobaeus, anger (e.g., spiritedness, irascibility, wrath, rancor, bitterness, etc.), vehement sexual desire, longings and yearnings, love of pleasure, love of wealth, love of reputation, etc.
  4. Pleasure can take the form of enchantment, mean-spirited satisfaction, enjoyment, or rapture.  Or according to Stobaeus, mean-spirited satisfaction, contentment, charms, etc.

The Good Passions

In addition to the irrational, excessive or unnatural (unhealthy) passions, there are also corresponding “good passions”.¬† Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking¬†virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, and he also describes them as being more transitory than virtues.¬† These fall into three categories, because no good state corresponds with emotional pain (suffering) or contraction of the soul (Diogenes Laertius, 7.116).

  1. Joy or delight (chara), a rational elation over the good, which is the alternative to irrational pleasure
  2. Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a rational avoidance of the bad, which is the alternative to irrational fear
  3. Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a rational striving for the good, which is the alternative to irrational desire

A.A. Long actually translates boul√™sis as “well-wishing”, which perhaps suggests a connection with “natural affection” (philostorgia). ¬†It’s sometimes unclear whether these healthy passions are directed toward externals or virtues. ¬†Marcus Aurelius refers to discerning which indifferent things are in accord with nature and taking delight in them (chara), while they last, but also to taking delight in his friend’s virtues. ¬†It’s possible that they are intended to refer both to virtues and also to the rational desire for preferred indifferents and avoidance of dispreferred ones, pursued lightly.

The good passions can be subdivided as follows:

  1. Joy can take the form of enjoyment/delight (terpsis), good spirits/cheer (euphrosunos), or tranquility/contentment (euthumia)
    • Translated as enjoyment, delight, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as¬†delight, sociability, and cheerfulness by Long and Sedley.
  2. Caution¬†can take the form of self-respect/modesty/dignity (aid√ī) or sanctity/purity/chastity (agneia)
    • Translated as respect and sanctity by Inwood and Gerson; as respect and cleanliness by Long and Sedley.
  3. Wishing can take the form of goodwill/benevolence (eunoia), kindness/graciousness (eumeneia, or sometimes eumenês), acceptance/welcoming (aspasmos) or contentment/affection (agapêsis)
    • Translated as goodwill, kindliness, acceptance, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as¬†kindness, generosity, warmth, and affection by Long and Sedley.

These are clearly important concepts in Stoicism.  The Sage is cheerful even in adversity, and contented in life.  However, the form of caution that seems most often mentioned is a kind of decency or modesty that makes the Sage averse to engaging in folly and vice.  (Perhaps also making him mildly averse to the company of bad men.)  The concept of wishing or willing seems focused mainly on goodwill toward other people, although it could also mean wishing oneself well, a kind of rational self-love.

The  distinction can be made between rational and irrational passions as follows:

  1. Elation (eparsis) can take the form of rational joy (chara) or irrational pleasure (hêdonê)
  2. Aversion (ekklisis), or the impulse to avoid something judged to be bad, can take the form of rational discretion (eulabeia) or irrational fear (phobos)
  3. Desire (orexis), or the impulse to get something judged to be good can take the form of rational willing (boulêsis) or irrational craving (epithumia)
  4. There is no rational form of pain or suffering (lupê), in the Stoic sense

The healthy passion of caution (or discretion) concerning the bad, and its subordinate passions of self-respect and chastity,¬†appears to particularly resemble the virtue of temperance.¬† The healthy passion of wishing (or willing) the good appears to mainly encompass love (agap√™sis), and related affects, such as goodwill, kindness, acceptance and affection.¬† This is the rational alternative to anger and sexual lust, or irrational desire.¬† It may be particularly¬†related to the most obviously “social” virtue: justice.¬† (A passage in Stobaeus appears to claim that for the Stoics, philia, love or friendship, was actually a species of the virtue justice.)

The Three Disciplines of Epictetus

In addition to the distinctions made in earlier Stoic writings, Epictetus seems to describe a tripartite distinction between three practical disciplines also called topoi, the same term used for the “parts” or “themes” of philosophical discourse.¬† Pierre Hadot, in The Inner Citadel, concludes that these probably correlate with the traditional Stoic parts of philosophical discourse, based on his careful analysis of the texts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.¬† These are the three “lived” versions of the more theoretical discourses found in Stoic logic, ethics, and physics.

  1. The Discipline of Assent (sunkatathesis).  The ability to assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgement toward uncertain ones.  This appears to be linked to the Stoic topic of logic, and perhaps also with the virtue of wisdom.
  2. The Discipline of Desire (orexis).¬† To have desire for and attain the good, to have aversion toward and¬†avoid the bad, and to feel indifference toward indifferent things.¬† The good is to be defined as¬† being solely in the domain of things under one’s control, one’s volitions or actions, making wisdom and other virtues the highest good.¬† This is the discipline of the passions and, perhaps surprisingly, may be linked to the Stoic topic of physics, as this encompasses the study of human nature and the passions, which are themselves primarily forms of desire and aversion, and it may also correspond with the virtues of courage and temperance, which relate to self-control over irrational desire (craving) and aversion (fear).¬† The study of Nature, and theology, are linked to the virtue of piety, and acceptance of the Cosmic order, which appears to be central to the discipline of desire: we must understand Nature and bring our desires and aversions into conformity with it.
  3. The Discipline of Action (horm√™).¬† To seek to act or not act, always in accord with one’s appropriate actions (kath√™konta) or duties, in terms primarily of natural and acquired social relationships.¬† This appears to perhaps be linked to the Stoic topic of ethics, and perhaps also with the virtue of justice.

Were Hand Gestures a Technique of Stoicism?

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

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

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

Chrysippus Seated

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

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

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

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

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

It could be that the Stoics used the gesture of the open hand to symbolize withholding assent from impressions, which is one of the most important techniques of Stoic psychology.¬† Epictetus told his students that when they spot a troubling impression they should apostrophize¬†(speak to) it as follows: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”¬† (More literally: You are just an appearance and not entirely the thing appearing.)¬† This is what modern psychotherapists call Cognitive Distancing and it would make sense to recall it by using an open-handed gesture as a trigger or aide memoire.

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

There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas as mentioned above.¬† A¬†modern Stoic might make the open-handed gesture shown in Chrysippus’ statue when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc.¬† He might also begin with his hand loosely closed, if he’s already given his assent to an impression, and slowly relax his fingers, metaphorically “letting go” of attachment (assent) to the troubling impression.

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

Stoicism: God or Atoms?

Some rough notes on the question as to whether modern Stoics need to believe in God, or if they may be agnostics or even atheists.

Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

Your emperor […] never sought to lose himself in sciences useless to man. He soon saw that the study of nature is an abyss, and applied philosophy wholly to morals. (Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius)

Although most (but perhaps not all, as we’ll see below) Stoics appear to have placed considerable importance upon belief in God (specifically, Zeus), there is some indication that they may also have accepted a kind of¬†uncertainty about the existence of God, as consistent with their school’s teachings, something relatively unusual for the period in which they lived. ¬†Only about 1% of the ancient Stoic writings survive today, at a rough estimate. ¬†We have substantial texts from only three authors: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. ¬†They were all late Roman Stoics and we have only fragments from the early Greek Stoics, including the founders of the school. ¬†(Also some important ancient¬†secondary sources, especially in the writings of the Platonist Cicero.) ¬†None of these Stoics appear to have been agnostics themselves but others may have been. ¬†What matters is whether they, and other Stoics, would have accepted that someone else could potentially be both an agnostic (or atheist) and a Stoic.

Although, the Stoics were known as Dogmatists by their critics, they were not doctrinaire or dogmatic in the modern sense. ¬†Indeed, Seneca makes it plain that they refused to treat their founders as gurus and encouraged each other to critically evaluate all aspects of the school’s teachings, and arrive at their own philosophical conclusions. ¬†That’s basically why Stoicism was a philosophy and not a religion.

What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.  Letter 33

Throughout history, Stoics, and indeed pantheists in general, have been accused of atheism. ¬†Spinoza, who has been called “more Stoic than the Stoics”, and his followers, were attacked as atheists because he said “Deus sive natura“, God is the same thing as Nature.¬†On the other hand, many people would say this was an¬†unfair criticism. ¬†However, the Stoic conception of God, or Zeus, which they also equate with Nature, is so unlike most theistic conceptions of God that it inevitably raises questions about whether it makes sense to call it “God” at all. ¬†Stoic physics and theology were heavily influenced by the writings of the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, the master of paradox, who wrote that Nature “is both willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus”. ¬†In other words, if you asked Heraclitus whether Nature is the same as Zeus he would probably have replied: “yes and no“! ¬†The¬†Stoics were¬†materialists (or corporealists) for whom God could not exist as a metaphysical or supernatural entity apart from physical Nature. ¬†They were therefore renowned for interpreting Greek myths about the gods allegorically, as metaphors for natural forces and processes. ¬†We have a surviving text on theology from the Stoic Cornutus, which elaborates at great length on the symbolic interpretation of the gods, drawing heavily on speculations about ancient etymologies. ¬†It concludes:

In the same way, my child, you can apply these basic models to everything else that comes down through mythology concerning those considered to be gods, in the conviction that the ancients were far from mediocre, but were capable of understanding the nature of the cosmos and ready to express their philosophy in symbols and enigmas.

Cornutus still believes piety is important and customary rituals are preserved.  However, the traditional myths are to be understood metaphorically as references to aspects of divine Nature.

When the young are being taught to sacrifice and pray, and worship and swear oaths in the right way and in the appropriate circumstances (according to the sense of proportion you adopt for yourself) ‚Äď you will come to grasp both your ancestral traditions about these things (the gods and their cults and everything that exists for their honour), and also an unblemished account of them, so that they will lead you only to piety, and not to superstition.

Likewise, Henry Sedgwick, in his biography of Marcus Aurelius, summarizes the original teachings of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism as follows:

Zeus, Hera and Vesta,
And all the gods and goddesses
Are not Gods, but names
Given to things that lack life and speech;
For Zeus is the sky, Hera the air,
Poseidon the sea, and Hephaestus fire.

Seneca also makes it clear that he sees the ancient myths as akin to¬†children’s stories and that no educated adult should take them literally.

I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle ‚Äď that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. (Letters, 24)

This is the source of much confusion: the Stoics do very frequently talk about Zeus but they clearly did¬†not mean their use of conventional¬†theological and mythological language to be taken at face value. ¬†Zeus, and the other traditional gods, are re-interpreted in naturalistic terms, as the personification of Nature as a whole, or certain aspects¬†thereof. ¬†This conveniently allowed the early Greek Stoics to escape the charge of atheism, which we should recall was the pretext for Socrates’ execution. ¬†However, it also allowed them to radically revise the conventional theological beliefs¬†held by non-philosophers, the “foolish” majority of people. ¬†This should come as no surprise because the Stoic school was¬†particularly known for introducing¬†paradoxical doctrines, intended to turn popular beliefs on their head.

For example, in an article entitled The Stoic Worldview, Dr. John Sellars, one of the leading contemporary scholars of Stoicism, writes:

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‚ÄėGod‚Äô was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‚ÄėHymn to Zeus‚Äô, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‚ÄėGod‚Äô is simply another name for Nature then it doesn‚Äôt really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn‚Äôt add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss.

Stoicism was a philosophy and not a religion, in the sense that its students were encouraged to be reflective and to critically evaluate the dogmas of the school rather than accept them as articles of faith. The scholars of the Middle Stoa, Panaetius and Posidonius, reputedly modified the doctrines of the early Greek Stoa significantly, assimilating elements of Platonism and Aristotelianism, whereas Zeno himself had been scathingly critical of Plato and Aristotle. Even earlier, we’re told that Chrysippus, the third head of the school, “differed on most points from Zeno, and from Cleanthes as well, to whom he often used to say that all he wanted was to be told what the doctrines were; he would find out the proofs for himself” (Diogenes Laertius).

This included disagreement among Stoics over aspects of Logic and Ethics, but also about Physics and the nature of the gods. For example, according to Diogenes Laertius, Cleanthes taught that the Sun was the ruling power of the world, where the mind of God is centred, whereas Posidonius made it the heaven, and Chrysippus either the heaven or the purest part of the ether that pervades all things. Panaetius said that the world is indestructible, whereas the other Stoics believed it was periodically destroyed in a cosmic conflagration. Zeno, Chrysippus and Posidonius said the substance of God is the whole world and heaven combined, whereas Antipater said it was something akin to air, and Bo√ęthus of Sidon denied that the world was a divine being and said instead¬†that God¬†was the sphere of the fixed stars. Zeno and Chrysippus argued for the reality of divination, as proof for the existence of God, whereas Panaetius denied that divination was real. Cleanthes said that all souls survive after death until the cosmic conflagration, whereas Chrysippus said that only the souls of the wise do. Many more disagreements are reported in the other ancient sources. In short, the Stoic school clearly tolerated divergent views on various fundamental questions of Physics and theology. ¬†Diogenes Laertius explained this striking divergence among the ancient Stoics, over fundamental theological questions, very clearly:

The doctrine that the world is a living being, rational, animate and intelligent, is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Providence, by Apollodorus in his Physics, and by Posidonius. […]¬†Bo√ęthus, however, denies that the world is a living thing. (Diogenes Laertius, Zeno)

In a recent article, entitled What is a Stoic?, John Sellars likewise noting the striking tolerance of these theological disagreements in the ancient Stoic school, concludes:

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‚Äėcore set of doctrines‚Äô approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said ‚Äúwe Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom‚ÄĚ (Ep. 33.4).

He adds that “as Seneca‚Äôs comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another.”

Moreover, this apparently included disagreement as to whether premises derived from Physics were actually required to support Stoic Ethics. ¬†It is true that according to Diogenes Laertius, with regard to their threefold curriculum of Ethics, Physics, and Logic, “No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” ¬†The fact that some, presumably most, Stoics held that these topics overlapped doesn’t necessarily mean that they thought they depended upon one another, though. ¬†However, more significantly, Diogenes here says that only some Stoics, not all, taught that these topics were interrelated. ¬†That necessarily means that at least some Stoic teachers must also have presented Physics and Ethics differently,¬†as basically independent¬†areas of study. ¬†That passage therefore appears to directly contradict the claim sometimes made today that all ancient Stoics adhered to an orthodox position that held their central doctrines in Physics and theology are necessary to justify their core Ethical doctrines. ¬†Diogenes Laertius clearly states that at least some Stoic teachers treated Ethics and Physics as completely separate topics.

The¬†Stoic attitude toward religion, as allegorical, appears to be derived from the Sophist Prodicus, a friend of Socrates, who was frequently labelled an “atheist” in the ancient world. ¬†The famous allegory of Prodicus, called “The Choice of Hercules”, as recounted in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, was apparently the text that inspired Zeno of Citium to become a philosopher, and a follower of the Cynic Crates. ¬†It ultimately led to the founding of the Stoic school. ¬†Prodicus was¬†called an “atheist” on account of his naturalistic reinterpretation of the gods as personifications of the sun, moon, rivers, etc., and things of benefit to our ancestors. ¬†The same way of interpreting the gods was explicitly attributed to Persaeus, the most prominent of Zeno’s immediate students, by Cicero in On the Nature of the Gods.

Persaeus says that it was men who had discovered some great aid to civilisation that were regarded as gods, and that the names of divinities were also bestowed upon actual material objects of use and profit, so that he is not even content to describe these as the creations of God, but makes out that they are themselves divine. (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.15)

In his recent book,¬†Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh therefore classes the Stoic Persaeus as an atheist, like Prodicus before him. ¬†However, it’s quite possible this naturalistic interpretation of the gods was¬†shared by most Stoics. ¬†We can see it clearly in Cornutus, but also in the writings of Seneca and others.

This debate about whether the ancient Stoics would require their followers to believe in God or not, and what they mean by “God”,¬†naturally interests modern Stoics, many of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves and seek to reconcile Stoic ethics and psychological practices with their own contemporary worldview.¬† It’s worth noting that Socrates was sometimes interpreted¬†as a partial¬†agnostic.¬† He admitted that¬†certainty about the gods is impossible but chose to believe in them¬†on the¬†basis of probability. ¬†In Plato’s Apology (40c) he argues that either death is followed by oblivion or our souls survive in an afterlife and are judged in Hades and associate with the souls of others who have died before us, he’s not sure which, although elsewhere he¬†presupposes the existence of the gods. ¬†It’s often been said that Socrates’¬†questioning method necessarily left¬†him¬†open to the possibility of atheism or at least to radical doubt about the nature of the gods and afterlife. ¬†Indeed, T.H. Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic” actually claimed¬†“it is as old as Socrates”, i.e., that Socrates was the first agnostic. ¬†Yet the Stoics generally held him in high regard as perhaps the closest historical approximation to¬†the ideal Sage.¬† In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, it’s asserted that Socrates was not an atheist but also that he thought metaphysical speculation about the nature of the universe as a whole was a waste of time.

He did not even discuss that topic so favoured by other talkers, ‚Äúthe Nature of the Universe‚ÄĚ: and avoided speculation on the so-called ‚ÄúCosmos‚ÄĚ of the Professors, how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens: indeed he would argue that to trouble one’s mind with such problems is sheer folly. In the first place, he would inquire, did these thinkers suppose that their knowledge of human affairs was so complete that they must seek these new fields for the exercise of their brains; or that it was their duty to neglect human affairs and consider only things divine?¬† Moreover, he marvelled at their blindness in not seeing that man cannot solve these riddles; since even the most conceited talkers on these problems did not agree in their theories, but behaved to one another like madmen. As some madmen have no fear of danger and others are afraid where there is nothing to be afraid of, as some will do or say anything in a crowd with no sense of shame, while others shrink even from going abroad among men, some respect neither temple nor altar nor any other sacred thing, others worship stocks and stones and beasts, so is it, he held, with those who worry with ‚ÄúUniversal Nature.‚ÄĚ Some hold that ‚ÄúWhat is‚ÄĚ is one, others that it is infinite in number: some that all things are in perpetual motion, others that nothing can ever be moved at any time: some that all life is birth and decay, others that nothing can ever be born or ever die. Nor were those the only questions he asked about such theorists. Students of human nature, he said, think that they will apply their knowledge in due course for the good of themselves and any others they choose. Do those who pry into heavenly phenomena imagine that, once they have discovered the laws by which these are produced, they will create at their will winds, waters, seasons and such things to their need? Or have they no such expectation, and are they satisfied with knowing the causes of these various phenomena? Such, then, was his criticism of those who meddle with these matters. His own conversation was ever of human things (Memorabilia, 1)

Moreover, in explaining his view that Stoicism followed Cynicism as part of a direct philosophical succession beginning with Socrates, Diogenes Laertius emphasizes the claim that Socrates was the first philosopher to eschew discussion of natural philosophy in favour of ethical questions directly related to problems of living.¬† (Natural philosophy or “Physics” included theology, as Diogenes acknowledges in discussing Socrates.)¬† He says that Socrates¬†“discussed moral questions in the workshops and the market-place, being convinced that the study of nature is no concern of ours.”¬† Elsewhere he notes that despite this Socrates did say some things about “providence”, although the extensive discussions of cosmology and theology attributed to him in the Platonic Dialogues are not his own words but those of Plato, who reputedly being began using “Socrates” as a mouthpiece for doctrines that were actually Pythagorean in origin.

In my opinion Socrates discoursed on Physics [including theology] as well as on ethics, since he holds some conversations about Providence, even according to Xenophon, who, however, declares that he only discussed ethics. But Plato, after mentioning Anaxagoras and certain other Physicists in the Apology, treats for his own part themes which Socrates disowned, although he puts everything into the mouth of Socrates.

It was the early Platonic Dialogues, such as the Apology, and the writings of Xenophon, which reputedly provide a more authentic portrayal of Socrates, which the Stoics modelled themselves upon.  This Socrates was the one who expressed agnosticism or uncertainty over ultimate questions about the nature of the universe and the existence of the gods.

Moreover, several ancient Stoics appear to have questioned the¬†importance of belief in God, at least to some extent.¬† Panaetius, the last “scholarch” or head of the Athenian school of Stoicism, who introduced it to Rome, is reported to have stated that discussion of the gods is “nugatory” or of negligible importance¬†in relation to the Stoic way of life (q.v., Algra, ‘Stoic Theology’, in The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, 2003, p. 154). ¬†Although like earlier Stoic teachers he probably did believe in Providence himself, it seems he felt that it was insignificant whether or not his Stoic students did so as well.

Moreover, Aristo of Chios, an influential associate of Zeno, who perhaps leaned more toward Cynicism and rejected certain fundamental aspects of early Stoicism, held more sceptical views later reported by Cicero as follows: “Aristo holds that no form of God is conceivable, and denies him sensation, and is in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether he is, or is not, animate” (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.14).¬† His views appear to have been controversial within Stoicism, although they nevertheless¬†had¬†a lasting influence.¬† For example, some scholars interpret his letters to Fronto as suggesting that Marcus Aurelius was “converted” to Stoic philosophy after reading Aristo of Chios. ¬†There’s some disagreement as to whether Aristo left the Stoa or remained a Stoic, albeit one who departed from the orthodox views of Zeno. ¬†For example, John Sellars writes “Aristo is forever labelled a ‘heterodox Stoic’ but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn‚Äôt run off to become a Cynic.”

Moreover, philosophers¬†from both¬†the Cynic and Megarian schools, important precursors of Stoicism, reputedly held controversial views about the existence of the gods. ¬†There are many passages in which Diogenes the Cynic ridicules religious practices such as praying to the gods for good health, while living in unhealthy ways. He thought the idea of salvation through initiation was ridiculous because it allowed bad people to be rewarded while the good suffered, just because they’d paid a priest. He reputedly burned a wooden statue of the god Heracles to cook his lentils. So it seems clear he thought the religious attitudes and practices of the majority were foolish and hypocritical. He attacks diviners and soothsayers as charlatans, preying on the superstitions of the gullible.

So did he propose an alternative form of religion? No. What does he say, then, about the existence of the gods? He famously said that the long-life and successful career of the notorious pirate Harpalos was proof against the existence of the gods. When asked directly if the gods exist, on one occasion, we’re told he said “I don’t know”, adding that all he knew was that it would be helpful if they did. We’re told someone once asked him “Are you the Diogenes who doesn’t believe in the existence of the gods?”, showing at least that this was his reputation during his lifetime. He replied, “How could I be when I consider you hateful to them?”, which was perhaps merely a joke. You might also say that anecdotes are told about Diogenes in which he various claims the existence of the gods is proven, disproven, or unknown to him. Nevertheless, the Stoics, particularly Epictetus, held Diogenes up as a near-sage and one of their most revered role-models.

We’re told Stilpo the Megarian was asked if the gods exist by Crates the Cynic. Stilpo and Crates were both important teachers of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Stilpo replied, “Don’t ask me about such matters in the street, you fool”, implying that the answer would provoke the crowds. When Diogenes Laertius cites this he goes on to say that likewise the Cynic Bion of Borysthenes, a contemporary of Zeno and fellow-student of Crates, when asked if the gods exist, replied “Will you not scatter the crowd from me, wretched old man!” We know from other sources that Bion criticised the gods fiercely and impiously, inspired by the teachings of the famous Cyrenaic philosopher “Theodoros the Atheist”.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, appears to have forwarded several arguments for the existence of god.  However, he also reputedly proposed that temples and religious sculptures should be abolished.  The Stoics in general appear to have fundamentally revised established assumptions concerning the nature of prayer and divination and to have rejected the common anthropomorphic view of the Greek and Roman gods. Hence, even insofar as certain Stoics endorsed a belief in god, they also radically modified traditional religious concepts and practices.

Moreover, even in the sparse literature that survives, the Stoics frequently express negative or sceptical views about traditional Graeco-Roman religion.  For example, the Stoic poet Lucan, nephew of Seneca, in his epic The Civil War (or Pharsalia) wrote:

No guardian gods watch over us from heaven:
Jove [i.e., Zeus] is no king; let ages whirl along
In blind confusion: from his throne supreme
Shall he behold such carnage and restrain
His thunderbolts? […]
Careless of men
Are all the gods.

It’s not clear if this was actually Lucan’s personal view, as a Stoic,¬†but it’s nevertheless clearly a profound questioning of established theological assumptions, sounding more Epicurean perhaps than traditionally Stoic.¬† Curiously, Seneca, who may have exerted considerable influence over Lucan’s Stoicism, argues that the traditional Stoic role-model Heracles (the son of Zeus) might be obsolete and better replaced by the more-recent example provided by Cato the Younger in the Roman civil war.¬† Together, therefore, Seneca and Lucan appear to be suggesting, or at least flirting with the notion,¬†that Stoics should model themselves on real¬†historical exemplars,¬†political and military figures like the Republican hero Cato, rather than mythological gods and demigods, like Zeus and Heracles.

Moreover, the fundamental question over the existence of God (or the gods) may have been given a kind of name or label in ancient philosophy.¬† About nine times in The Meditations, according to C.R. Haines, Marcus Aurelius alludes to contrasting viewpoints traditionally taken as characteristic of two opposing traditions in ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy: “God or atoms”.¬† Belief that God (or “Providence”) ordered the cosmos was taken to be characteristic of the broad tradition originating with Pythagoras and Socrates, and including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.¬† By contrast, belief that the universe was due to the random collision of atoms, originating with Democritus, was characteristic of the Epicurean school, the main rival of Stoicism. ¬†Professor Michael Sugrue discusses this aspect of The Meditations in this section of his popular lecture on Marcus Aurelius.

In his rigorous analysis of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the French scholar Pierre Hadot argues that the text clearly shows that Marcus views this as an allusion to a well-established line of argument, presumably one¬†taught in Stoic schools of the period.¬† Although Marcus rejected the “atoms” (Epicurean) hypothesis, nevertheless, Hadot concludes that he seems to be arguing that even if someone were to accept this and reject Providence, the core of Stoicism, the Stoic ethical doctrines, would still remain true and compelling.

Marcus thus opposes two models of the universe: that of Stoicism and that of Epicureanism.  His reason for doing so is to show that, on any hypothesis, and even if one were to accept, in the field of [philosophical] physics, the model most diametrically opposed to that of Stoicism, the Stoic moral attitude is still the only possible one. (Hadot, The Inner Citadel, 1998, p. 148)

There’s a very vocal group of people today who very strongly believe that all ancient Stoics strictly adhered to the doctrine that to be a Stoic one must agree with a specific set of “orthodox” theological doctrines from Stoic Physics and that Stoic Ethics necessarily requires belief in these, mainly the belief that Nature is a provident and divine being. ¬†When I published the first draft of this article one of them objected very sternly that I’d completely misrepresented Pierre Hadot on this point. ¬†So I went back and re-read the section from Hadot’s ¬†book very carefully. ¬†In fact, it seemed to me to confirm my interpretation. ¬†The main objection seemed to be that Hadot affirmed that Marcus himself did believe in Providence.

Whatever modern historians may claim, the dilemma ‚Äúeither providence or chance,‚ÄĚ when used by Seneca or by Marcus Aurelius, does not signify either the renunciation of Stoic physical theories or an eclectic attitude which refuses to decide between Epicureanism and Stoicism. In fact, we can see that Marcus has already made his choice between Epicureanism and Stoicism, by the very way in which he describes the Epicurean model with a variety of pejorative terms‚Ķ (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)

Now, that’s not in dispute. ¬†So it’s irrelevant. ¬†Marcus certainly rejected Epicurean Physics, “atoms”, and believed strongly in Providence. ¬†What’s in question is whether he would also have asserted that all other Stoics must share that belief or that they must believe in Stoic Physics to be virtuous or believe in Stoic Ethics. ¬†It seems to me that Marcus repeatedly makes it clear that he does not believe this and that Hadot confirms this interpretation of his text.

Our choice of a model of the universe thus changes nothing with regard to the fundamental Stoic disposition of consent to events, which is nothing other than the discipline of desire. (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)

So “nothing changes” with regard to the Stoic Discipline of Desire, says Hadot, for Stoics who reject belief in Providence in favour of a universe governed by random atoms, because the model of Physics we choose doesn’t matter in this regard.

I hadn’t noticed until I re-read Hadot but he arrived at the same conclusion as me regarding the origin of the “God or atoms” argument: that it was has the appearance of a well-established Stoic doctrine derived from an earlier source.

Such arguments are obviously not Marcus’ inventions. When he first speaks about them, he makes only a brief allusion to them, as if he were speaking of a well-known school-doctrine (“Remember the disjunction…”) without bother to set forth the entire chain of reasoning. (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)

Hadot continues by explaining that for Marcus, based on what appears to be a well-established Stoic doctrine alluded to also by Seneca and Epictetus, “it is impossible not to be a Stoic”, if one reasons accurately about Ethics, regardless of the Physics or theological beliefs one chooses.

When, in other passages, Marcus seems to imply that the Stoic moral attitude would be the same, whichever model of the universe one uses, and whichever physics one accepts, he is trying to demonstrate that, on all possible hypotheses, it is impossible not to be a Stoic. (The Inner Citadel, p. 150)

Hadot then adds that for Marcus, because of the Stoic “God or atoms” argument, right-minded individuals, who have thought rationally about Ethics, should have to “live like Stoics”, even if they agreed with Epicurean atomism, and rejected the notion that Nature is divine and provident.

Even if Epicurean physics were true, we would still have to renounce the Epicurean idea that pleasure is the only value. We would still have to live like Stoics. (pp. 150-151)

And, yet again, Hadot affirms this interpretation of the nine passages in Marcus alluding to the “God or atoms” distinction,

Either providence – in which case we must live like Stoics – or else atoms – in which case we still have to live like Stoics. (p. 151)

Turning to another modern commentator, this time the biographer of Marcus Aurelius, Frank McLynn, we find him arriving at same conclusion as Hadot regarding Marcus’ use of the “God or atoms” argument:

Yet in the end, Marcus admitted that the atoms-versus-Providence conundrum was insoluble by empirical evidence and argued that it actually made no difference to ethical theory which view of the universe was entertained; we can still use reason to impose order on chaos. (pp. 219-220)

It’s well-established by scholars that the ancient Stoics, probably influenced by the example of Chrysippus’ extensive writings,¬†frequently took it upon themselves to formulate arguments to persuade non-Stoics,¬†or philosophers of opposing schools, of Stoic views, on their own terms, i.e., in their own language and based upon assumptions familiar to them.¬† The notion that Stoic ethics, the central doctrine of Stoicism, could be justified even on the basis of an atomistic and atheistic or agnostic world-view, was probably essential to arguments designed to win over followers from other schools, or non-philosophers, who did not have the same kind of belief in God as the founders of Stoicism and their more orthodox followers.

For example, some of Marcus’ comments about this “God or atoms” argument are as follows:

Recall once again this alternative: ‘if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms’… (4.3)

Alexander of Macedon and his stable-boy were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same creative principle of the universe [God], or they were alike dispersed into atoms. ( 6.24)

So Marcus argues that the Stoic’s attitude toward death should be the same whether he believes in God or not. ¬†It’s been observed that Seneca¬†says something that¬†resembles this:

What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor of transition, for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here. (Letters, 24)

In another passage, Seneca appears to be alluding to the same distinction as Marcus, between God and atoms (or “chance”):

Perhaps someone will say: “How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.” Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance. But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, ‚Äď if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind. (Seneca, Epistles, 16)

In other words, Stoic philosophy is just as relevant, he appears to be claiming, whether or not we believe that events are causally determined by unthinking Fate, by the Providential Will of God, or by blind chance.

Marcus returns to the theme several times, though, and refers repeatedly to the notion that it is indifferent which one of these¬†opposing¬†metaphysical views (“God or atoms”) we accept, because Stoic Ethics leads us to the same conclusions either way.

If the choice is yours, why do the thing?¬† If another’s, where are you to lay the blame for it?¬† On gods?¬† On atoms?¬† Either would be insanity.¬† All thoughts of blame are out of place. (8.17)

That is, whether a Stoic believes in God or not (in mere random atoms), either way he should not think in terms of “blame”.

It may be that the World-Mind [God] wills each separate happening in succession; and, if so, then accept the consequences.  Or, it may be, there was but one primal act of will, of which all else is the sequel; every event being thus the germ of another.  To put it another way, things are either isolated units [atoms], or they form one inseparable whole.  If that whole be God, then all is well; but if aimless chance, at least you need not be aimless also. (9.28)

So the Stoic reminds himself that even if the whole universe is composed of aimless chance, or random atoms, rather than being steered by God, in any case, he should himself not act aimlessly.  In other words, we should make it our constant goal to pursue the good, to pursue wisdom and the other virtues, whether or not we believe in Providence.

Either things must have their origin in one single intelligent source [God], and all fall into place to compose, as it were, one single body Рin which case no part ought to complain of what happens for the good of the whole Рor else the world is nothing but atoms and their confused minglings and dispersions.  So why be so harassed? (9.39)

Whether one’s fate is the product of an intelligent God or the mere random collision of atoms, in either case, the Stoic should not feel personally harassed.¬† (Because our only true good is virtue, which is under our own control, and external matters are morally indifferent.)

No matter whether the universe is a confusion of atoms or a natural growth, let my first conviction be that I am part of a Whole which is under Nature’s governance; and my second, that a bond of kinship exists between myself and all other similar parts. (10.6)

So the Stoic principle of kinship to all mankind, and to Nature as a whole, holds good, whether or not we believe in a provident God.  In the very next passage, Marcus turns to the question of whether we should be shocked by change and loss in the universe.

But supposing that we even put [divine] Nature as an agent out of the question and explain that these things are “naturally” so, even then it would be absurd to assert that the parts of the whole are naturally subject to change, and at the same time to be astonished at a thing or take it amiss as thought it befell contrary to nature, and that thought things dissolve into the very constituents out of which they are composed. ¬†For either there is a scattering of the elements out of which I have been built up, or a transmutation of the solid into the earthy and of the spiritual into the aerial… (10.7)

This wasn’t actually one of the nine passages identified by Haines. ¬†However, in this tenth instance, Marcus considers two hypotheses: first, that the universe is ordered by a provident and divine Nature, second, that Nature is not an agent, not divine Providence, but merely a blind material process, as we tend to think of it today. ¬†In either case, Marcus draws the same ethical conclusion: that we should accept change and loss as indifferent natural events.

Likewise:

There must be either a predestined Necessity and inviolable plan, or a gracious Provident God, or a chaos without design or director.  If then there be an inevitable Necessity, why kick against the pricks?  If a Providence that is ready to be gracious, render thyself worthy of divine succour.  But if a chaos without guide, congratulate thyself that amid such a surging sea thou hast in thyself a guiding rational faculty [hêgemonikon].  (12.14)

And:

[Thou must have this rule ready for use:] to realize that all that befalls thee from without is due either to Chance or to Providence, nor hast thou any call to blame Chance or to impeach Providence. (12.24)

Note that in this passage, Marcus appears to say that he must always have a rule ready-to-hand in his mind that says that events may be due either to Providence or, alternatively, to mere Chance.  That would appear to mean always accepting the possibility that Providence is not responsible for events, which arguably amounts to a kind of agnosticism.

In summary, Marcus appears to be trying to persuade himself:

  • That whether we are dissolved into God or dispersed among random atoms, either way all of us, whether kings or servants, face the fate in death.
  • That whether the universe is rule by a provident God or due to the random collision of atoms, either way it makes no sense to blame others for our actions.
  • Whether the universe is governed by God or due to the “aimless chance” movement of atoms, either way “you need not be aimless also.”
  • Whether the universe is governed by a single intelligent Providence or it is nothing but random atoms, in either case on should not be “harassed”.
  • Finally, whether the universe is a “confusion of atoms” or the natural growth (of a provident God?), either way I should be convinced that I am part of something bigger, and a kinship therefore exists between me and other parts.

Scholars disagree over Marcus’ intention in presenting himself with this dichotomous choice between “God and atoms”, however.¬† One common interpretation is that he is reminding himself that whether a creator God exists, or whether the universe is simply ordered by blind chance, in either case the practical (ethical) principles of Stoicism should still be followed.¬† For the Stoics, who were essentially pantheists,¬†theology was part of the discipline of “physics”, because they were materialists, who viewed God as pervading, and ordering,¬†the whole of nature.

Moreover, I believe that a remark made by Epictetus, whose philosophy Marcus studied closely may be read as shedding further light on the contrast between “God or atoms”.¬† In one of the fragments in Stobaeus attributed to Epictetus (fr. 1) we are told he said the following:

What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth?¬† Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell?¬† It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them?¬† And ought we not to say that¬†those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves.

Stobaeus titles this:¬†“From Arrian the pupil of Epictetus. To the man who was bothering himself about the problem of being.”

If this fragment came from one of the two lost books of the Discourses, this may be the source of Marcus Aurelius’ comments about “God and atoms”.¬† What is clear is that in this passage, Epictetus says that questions concerning Nature (Phusis),¬†¬†which the Stoics use as a synonym for God, are unnecessary and potentially distracting elements of philosophy.¬† He even says that whether Nature (God?) really exists or not, is a question about which there is no need for Stoics to bother themselves.¬† He also says that specific questions such as whether the universe is made of atoms or of elements such as “fire and earth”, are fundamentally indifferent with regard to Stoic ethics.¬† The Stoics believed that the universe is composed of a divine fire-like substance with causal powers (aka “pneuma”), identified both¬†with God and the “spark” or fragment of divinity within humans, and the inert earth or matter upon which it acts.

Epictetus goes on to say that the elements of nature are “perhaps are incomprehensible to the human mind, but even if one should suppose them to be wholly comprehensible, still, what good does it do to comprehend them?”¬† As the Stoic thought God to be material, this might be read as a kind of agnosticism, which questions whether knowledge of God is comprehensible or necessary to the practical aims of Stoic philosophy.

This isn’t an isolated attitude. ¬†Marcus says several times that the truth about Physics, the nature of the universe, is uncertain. ¬†He even appears, in a passage not unlike the one above, to say that the Stoics admit that Physics is speculative, and our judgements regarding it are fallible.

As for the things of the world, their true nature is in a manner so involved with obscurity, that unto many philosophers, and those no mean ones, they seemed altogether incomprehensible, and the Stoics themselves, though they judge them not altogether incomprehensible, yet scarce and not without much difficulty, comprehensible, so that all assent of ours is fallible, for who is he that is infallible in his conclusions? (Meditations, 5.10)

In the final¬†passage of Book I of The Meditations, Marcus likewise thanks the gods that when he became interested in philosophy he didn’t fall into the hands of sophists nor become distracted by writing about syllogistic logic or celestial phenomena because these are all things for which “we need the help of fortune and the gods”, i.e., subjects where our knowledge is inconclusive.

One possible explanation for¬†these and similar quotes would be if¬†the Stoic school itself had somehow arrived at the position that Physics is valuable but uncertain, whereas the central doctrines of Ethics can be known with certainty. ¬†This is speculation: in defending Zeno’s teachings against the arguments of Academic Skepticism, Chrysippus may have been forced to concede that he could not demonstrate the doctrines of Stoic Physics with absolute certainty. ¬†He would therefore have been¬†forced to maintain that Stoic Physics¬†provides extremely valuable but¬†not essential support for Stoic Ethics.

Overall, I would say that the literature of ancient Stoicism suggests that Marcus Aurelius and perhaps also Epictetus believed that agnosticism or even atheism may have been consistent with the Stoic way of life.¬† What I haven’t attempted to do here is to argue at length for the philosophical consistency of an agnostic (or atheistic) form of Stoicism.¬† However, in this regard, I would begin by pointing to the argument that the central principle of Stoicism, that the only true good is wisdom (the cardinal human virtue or excellence), acceptance of which arguably does not require belief in God, and from which other Stoic principles may derive without the need for belief in God as an additional premise.

Stoic Philosophy in Build your Resilience (2012)

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

Stoic Philosophy & Resilience-Building

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

Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience (2012)Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1444168711

Details on Google Books

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

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

The Essence of Stoicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Handbookbegins with a very clear and simple ‚Äúcommon sense‚ÄĚ declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.

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

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

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

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

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

  7. However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (‚Äúno one will harm you‚ÄĚ) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.

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

  9. From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (‚Äúimpressions‚ÄĚ) and saying in response to them: ‚ÄúYou are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.‚ÄĚ (Something that closely this resembles the basic strategy we call ‚Äúdistancing‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúdefusion‚ÄĚ in modern CBT.)

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

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

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: What is Resilience?

  2. Letting go of Experiential Avoidance

  3. Values Clarification

  4. Commitment to Valued Action

  5. Acceptance & Defusion

  6. Mindfulness & the Present Moment

  7. Progressive Relaxation

  8. Applied Relaxation

  9. Worry Postponement

  10. Problem-Solving Training

  11. Assertiveness & Social Skills

  12. Stoic Philosophy & Resilience

About the Author

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

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The Earl of Shaftesbury on The View from Above

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

The Earl of Shaftesbury

The View from Above

Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury
Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury

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

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

New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

Short article describing resilience-building and introducing the new book Build your Resilience (2012), containing a chapter on Stoic philosophy and resilience.

New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

This new book by Donald Robertson, the author of The Philosophy of CBT, contains a chapter on Stoic philosophy in relation to resilience-building.

Psychological Resilience-Building

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

Based on my book for the Teach Yourself series, Build your Resilience(2012).

What is Resilience?

How can you improve your ability to ‚Äúthrive and survive‚ÄĚ in any situation? What disadvantages, stresses, or difficulties do you currently face? What future problems might you need to anticipate and prepare for? What strengths and assets have helped you to cope well with difficult events in the past? What can you learn from the way other people deal with life‚Äôs challenges? These are all questions about psychological resilience. Building resilience is a way of improving your ability to cope with adversity or stressful situations in general.

We all need some degree of resilience in order to cope with the problems life throws at us. Indeed, research shows that resilience is normal and involves ordinary skills and resources. Everyone is capable of being resilient and becoming more so by developing appropriate coping strategies. The types of adversity that demand resilience can range from ordinary ‚Äúdaily hassles‚ÄĚ to major setbacks, stressful life events such as divorce, redundancy, bankruptcy, illness, or bereavement, and perhaps even more severe trauma in some cases. Most people believe that they are at least moderately resilient. However, few people are as resilient as they could be in all areas of life, and there are always more aspects of resilience that can be developed.

Building Resilience

So how is resilience built? The American Psychological Association (APA) has published its own research-based public information leaflet entitled The Road to Resilience, developed by a team of six psychologists working in this area. Their ten recommendations for developing and maintaining resilience can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. Maintain good relationships with family, friends, and others
  2. Avoid seeing situations as insurmountable problems and look for ways forward where possible
  3. Accept certain circumstances as being outside of your control, where necessary
  4. Set realistic goals, in small steps if necessary, and plan to work regularly on things that are achievable
  5. Take decisive action to improve your situation rather than simply avoiding problems
  6. Look for opportunities for personal growth by trying to find positive or constructive meaning in events
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself and develop confidence in your ability to solve problems
  8. Keep things in perspective by looking at them in a balanced way and focusing on the bigger picture
  9. Maintain a hopeful and optimistic outlook, focusing on concrete goals, rather than worrying about possible future catastrophes
  10. Take care of yourself, paying attention to your own needs and feelings and looking after your body by taking healthy physical exercise and regularly engaging in enjoyable, relaxing and healthy activities, perhaps including practices such as meditation

Books like Build your Resiliencecan help you learn specific techniques and strategies to develop these attitudes and skills, and learn other resilient ways of thinking and acting.

The Penn Resilience Program (PRP)

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) is perhaps the best example of an established resilience-building approach. It was developed initially as a means of preventing depression over the long-term with schoolchildren, based on Martin Seligman‚Äôs earlier work on ‚Äúlearned optimism‚ÄĚ and adapting the techniques of standard cognitive therapy to serve a preventative rather than remedialfunction. It has been supported by compelling evidence showing its effectiveness as preventative treatment for depression and also, in some studies, for anxiety. For example, up to two years after undergoing classes in resilience-building, children considered at risk of depression were found to be about half as likely to have actually developed it as their peers in ‚Äúcontrol‚ÄĚ groups, who did not receive any resilience training (Reivich¬†& Shatt√©, 2002, p. 11). In schoolchildren, for whom this approach was originally designed, research found that ‚Äúconduct problems‚ÄĚ, their behaviour, also improved as a result.

The version of the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) described by Reivich¬†and Shatt√© (2002) consists of ‚Äúseven key skills‚ÄĚ:

  1. Monitoring your thoughts: Learning to catch your unhelpful thoughts as they occur and to understand how they influence your feelings and actions
  2. Spotting ‚Äúthinking errors‚ÄĚ: Spotting common errors (or ‚Äúthinking traps‚ÄĚ) among your thoughts such as excessive self-blame or jumping to conclusions, etc.
  3. Identifying unhelpful beliefs: Identifying unhelpful underlying (‚Äúcore‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúiceberg‚ÄĚ) beliefs and evaluating them
  4. Challenging unhelpful beliefs: This includes problem-solving as well as learning to dispute faulty ‚ÄúWhy?‚ÄĚ beliefs, or rumination, about the causation of problems that can get in the way of solving them
  5. Challenging catastrophic worries: Dealing specifically with ‚ÄúWhat if?‚ÄĚ thinking, or unrealistic worry, by challenging catastrophic beliefs about consequences of problems and focusing instead on the most likely outcomes (‚Äúdecatastrophising‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúputting things in perspective‚ÄĚ)
  6. Rapid calming and focusing strategies: Coping skills for use in real-world situations, consisting of a simplified form of Applied Relaxation (Reivich¬†& Shatt√©, 2002, pp. 192-196) and coping imagery used to ‚Äúcalm‚ÄĚ stressful emotions and distraction (‚Äúfocusing‚ÄĚ) techniques to quickly manage intrusive thoughts, worry, and rumination
  7. ‚ÄúReal-time resilience‚ÄĚ: This involves using a much-abbreviated version of the disputation skills (4 and 5) above to challenge unhelpful thoughts more quickly and replace them with resilient ones in specific situations by completing the ‚Äútag lines‚ÄĚ or self-statements: ‚ÄúA more accurate way of seeing this is‚Ķ‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not true because‚Ķ‚ÄĚ, and ‚ÄúA more likely outcome is‚Ķ and I can‚Ķ to deal with it.‚ÄĚ (Reivich¬†& Shatt√©, 2002, pp. 206-210)

New Book: Build your Resilience

Due for publication by Hodder in May 2012, as part of the popular Teach Yourself series of self-help books.

ISBN: 1444168711

Resilience: How to Thrive and Survive in Any Situationhelps you to prepare for adversity by finding healthier ways of responding to stressful thoughts and feelings. You will learn a comprehensive toolkit of effective therapeutic strategies and techniques, drawing upon innovative ‚Äúmindfulness and acceptance-based‚ÄĚ approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), combined with elements of established psychological approaches to stress prevention and management. The book also draws upon classical Stoic philosophy to provide a wider context for resilience-building.

This book is a complete course in resilience training, covering everything from building long-term resilience by developing psychological flexibility, mindfulness and valued action, through specific behavioural skills such as applied relaxation, worry postponement, problem-solving, and assertiveness. Each chapter contains a self-assessment test, case study, practical exercises and reminder boxes and concludes with a reminder of the key points of the chapter (Focus Points) and a round-up of what to expect in the next (Next Step), which will whet your appetite for what’s coming and how it relates to what you’ve just read.

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

Pre-Order Online

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The View from Above (Stoic Meditation Script)

Script for the Stoic meditation exercise known as “the view from above.”

The View from Above

Stoic Meditation Script

Socrates in the clouds
Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

(This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth. (Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations)

Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable‚Ķ Close your eyes and relax‚Ķ [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing‚Ķ Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath‚Ķ Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply‚Ķ [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one‚Ķ From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes‚Ķ Be aware of your body as one‚Ķ every nerve, muscle and fibre‚Ķ Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing‚Ķ Some things can change just by being observed‚Ķ

Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…

Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.

As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…

Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…

You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.

And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…

You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants‚Ķ the mere blink of an eye‚Ķ the turn of a screw‚Ķ a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time‚Ķ Yet the ‚Äúhere and now‚ÄĚ is important‚Ķ standing as the centre point of all human experience‚Ķ Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time‚Ķ Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe‚Ķ bigger than the universe‚Ķ enveloping everything that can be conceived‚Ķ From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast‚Ķ

You contemplate all things, past, present and future‚Ķ You see your life within the bigger picture‚Ķ the total context of cosmic time and space‚Ķ The totality is absolute reality‚Ķ You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the ‚ÄúAll‚ÄĚ itself‚Ķ Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe‚Ķ Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design‚Ķ

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…

Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.

Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…

Now think about the room around you‚Ķ Think about action‚Ķ movement‚Ķ think about looking around and getting your orientation‚Ķ raising your head a little‚Ķ Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply‚Ķ a little bit more energetically‚Ķ let your body feel more alive and ready for action‚Ķ breathe energy and vitality into your body‚Ķ breathe a little deeper and deeper again‚Ķ until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation‚Ķ taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life‚Ķ beginning now‚Ķ take a deep breath‚Ķ and open your eyes now‚Ķ when you’re ready‚Ķ entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity‚Ķ