The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Short vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

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

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… 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, you know that you are down there far 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 become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  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 you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below 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 species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

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

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

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 remember 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… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

Antisthenes and Stoicism

Short article summarising some things we know about the life and thought of the philosopher Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ closest companions and an important precursor of Stoicism.

AntisthenesSome ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.  This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.

See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.

Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.

Antisthenes’ Life

We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood.  He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle.  Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.

At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style.  He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age.  Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead.  He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates.  Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles.  Socrates himself was a decorated war hero.  So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.

Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates.  He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle.  Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato.  Plato was about the same age as Xenophon.  Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato was absent due to illness and Xenophon was on a military service.  Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.

Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus.  For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city.  (Diogenes Laertius)

According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies.  Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato.  Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse.  It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!”  For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled.  He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character.  For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak.  (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)

Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity.  According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”

It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle.  However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent.  He only accepted a handful.

To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)

He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.

The Cynics

One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.

Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition.  Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes.  However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met.  Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy.  So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic.   Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:

From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of  indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.

Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common.  In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:

They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.

Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.

When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”

He walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him.  Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.

However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:

It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)


Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”.  Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad.  He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”.  The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad.  He also advocated a simple life.  By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment.  He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.

He practised indifference to the opinion of others.  When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”.  Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36).  He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones.  (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”)  Likewise, that “it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.”  When someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.)  This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.

Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:

  • That virtue can be taught.
  • That only the virtuous are noble.
  • That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
  • That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
  • That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
  • That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
  • That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
  • That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
  • That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.

If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points.  It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules.  By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.

Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.”  This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.


Antisthenes was a very prolific writer.  In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things.  His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style.  However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s.  Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts.  In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.

These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts.  The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good.  Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes.  Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.

He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general.  He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover.  One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear.  His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.

What the Stoics Really Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It is nothing to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are they now?”

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

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

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

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

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

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

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

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

The Daily Stoic Cover

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

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

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

Now Available: Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

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

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

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

Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

Article outlining the criticisms of Epicureanism made by the Stoic Epictetus.

EpicurusNB: This is a draft, I’m still adding the final sections.

In the surviving Discourses, Epictetus is shown discussing the rival philosophical school of Epicureanism at considerable length with his Stoic students.  Typically his comments are scathingly critical of Epicureanism.  He even appears to criticize some of his students for failing to attain Stoic virtue by accusing them of being mere “Epicureans”.  Diogenes Laertius, one of our few sources for Epicurean doctrines, begins his chapter on Epicurus in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers with a list of criticisms and allegations made against him by the Stoics.  He adds: “Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him”, which is definitely in accord with the tone of criticism we find in the surviving Discourses.

Some of Epictetus’ comments are scattered, and of those some are more direct than others.  However, there are also three Discourses in which he more explicitly and directly critiques the philosophy of Epicurus.  

  1. In answer to Epicurus (1.23)
  2. Against Epicureans and Academics (2.20)
  3. A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean (3.7)

This is probably fairly consistent with Stoic teachings in general, which appear to have become increasingly focused on the criticism of Epicureanism from at least the time of Chrysippus onward.  Diogenes Laertius tells us that, among his numerous books, Chrysippus wrote two entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, which definitely sound like they may have contained systematic critiques of the Epicurean position.

Often criticisms of Epicurean philosophy merge with more general criticisms made against those who treat pleasure as the goal of life.  In the time of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, this probably began with attacks against the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and later expanded to encompass the teachings of Epicurus.  However, it also extends more generally to non-philosophers who treat pleasure as if it were the most important thing in life.  Some proponents of Epicureanism will object that this is a caricature of his philosophical teachings.  However, the Epicurean teachings were notoriously ambiguous, or even contradictory, and Epicurus and his followers do seem at times to have professed doctrines that sound like those being attacked by the Stoics, including the sort of hedonism Epictetus is so keen to dispute for the sake of his students.

Epictetus’ key criticisms of Epicurus can be summed up as follows:

  1. Like the Academic Skeptics, Epicurus frequently contradicts himself by taking for granted in practice assumptions that he claims to reject in his philosophical doctrines.
  2. If he rejects the concept of fellowship between mankind, or a moral duty to others, then what’s motive for writing so many books and teaching his philosophy to others?
  3. If he really wanted to obtain “security” for his own tranquillity from other men then, paradoxically, he’d actually be better to teach them Stoicism rather than Epicureanism, because that would better serve his own self-interest.

Typically he employs a method that’s modelled on Socratic questioning, seeking to expose internal contradictions in his opponents’ views, especially between their words and actions. Hence, this isn’t an abstract or nit-picking debate. Epictetus is very much focused on the day-to-day practical implications of following one philosophy over another. Likewise, it’s sometimes said that he’s misinterpreting the Epicureans or being unfair to them. However, it’s likely that he was more familiar with Epicurean doctrines, and their practical way of life, than we are today. He probably had many Epicureans visit his school. Indeed, in one of the Discourses described below, we can actually see the record of a Socratic exchange between Epictetus and an Epicurean philosopher, which apparently took place in public before his students.

In answer to Epicurus

In this Discourse (1.23), Epictetus begins by claiming that Epicurus has “set our good in the husk which we wear”, the physical body, and that by doing so he’s led into contradiction when he also tries to profess the view that humans are by nature social beings.  We’re told Epicurus taught that “we should neither admire nor accept anything that is detached from the nature of the good”, something the Stoics would emphatically agree with.  However, we’re also told that Epicurus rejected the view that affection for our own children is a natural instinct, which the Stoics argue forms the basis of our social nature, and the virtue of justice.  For Epicureans, although friendship is important, it’s typically portrayed as being of only instrumental value, i.e., a means to the end of preserving one’s own mind in pleasant tranquillity.  Sometimes love or friendship may cause more turmoil than calm, and in these cases Epicureans seem to shun relationships.  For that reason, incidentally, Seneca also accuses Epicureanism of encouraging superficial or “fair-weather” friendships.

Epicurus actually taught that the wise man will not raise a family and that his followers should emulate this way of life, which he apparently followed himself in practice.  He apparently argued that by marrying and having children, one makes oneself particularly vulnerable to disturbance and emotional suffering on their behalf, so it is better to avoid this if you want to live a life of tranquillity.  Compare this to Socrates, the Stoics’ supreme role-model, who reputedly told his friends that he remained married to his notoriously shrewish wife, Xanthippe because she offered him the opportunity to strengthen his character through patience and self-discipline in the face of provocation.  Epictetus ridicules the obvious inconsistency of Epicurus in this regard because he was understood to be very fond of his favourite house-slave, nicknamed “Mouse” and concerned for his welfare.  If he really believed that we should avoid marrying and having children to minimise potential for emotional disturbance, then to be truly consistent Epicurus should have also avoided becoming emotionally attached to his friends and slaves.  Epictetus says, strikingly, here that “once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love it or to care for it.”  He’s talking about the normal state of affairs of course, and I’m sure he’d admit that there are some exceptions to this natural inclination.

He goes on to say that Epicurus, for the same reasons that he gives against marrying and having children, also advises his followers not to engage in politics.  By this he means generally being involved in public life, the affairs of the city, for the sake of one’s community, and not just what we mean by professional politics today.  Epicurus, of course, withdrew to a private garden outside the city walls of Athens where he enjoyed the company of a small circle of friends, who discussed philosophy among themselves in seclusion.  One of the mottoes of the Epicurean garden, according to Plutarch, was actually “live in obscurity” (lathe biōsas).  We might say: “keep your head down and stay out of trouble.”  By contrast, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down the public colonnade known as the Stoa Poekile, on the edge of the Athenian marketplace.  He probably did this, partly, in emulation of Socrates who also taught philosophy in the agora.  Members of the public, philosophers of other schools, and politicians, could approach them there and engage them in debate over the nature of philosophical questions, particularly ethical questions of a practical nature.  Epictetus appears to imply that Epicurus’ advice was rather than to marry and have children or to engage in public life, as the Stoics advised their students, one should “live among men as though you were a fly among flies”, meaning in a detached manner, lacking any sense of natural affection or affiliation toward other people.

Epictetus attacks Epicurus quite ferociously for hypocrisy in this regard, partly because he ignores the fact that affection for own children is completely natural, and therefore the basis of social ethics, according to Stoicism.  Even domestic animals like sheep, or wild animals like wolves, do not feel indifference to their own offspring.  (The Stoics, incidentally, classified people as having lost their essential humanity and degenerating to the level of either domestic or wild animals if they’d succumbed to the vices of hedonism or aggression, respectively.)  In ancient Greece, as in the tale of Oedipus, unwanted or sickly infants were sometimes left outdoors by their parents to die of exposure.  So Epictetus concludes his Socratic charge of contradiction and hypocrisy, against Epicurus, as follows:

Come now, who follows your advice when he sees his child fallen on the ground and crying?  Why, in my opinion, your mother and your father, even if they had divined that you were going to say such things, would not have left you to die of exposure!

Against Epicureans and Academics

In this Discourse (2.20), Epictetus begins by reminding his students of several well-established criticisms made against Academic Skepticism.  His main objection is that the Skeptics contradict themselves by forwarding arguments that take for granted some of the assumptions they’re trying to undermine.  He soon shifts his focus onto Epicurus, though, whom he accuses of essentially the same philosophical error.  

His first target is the claim, which he attributes to the Epicurean school, that there is no “natural fellowship” among mankind.  Epictetus claims that Epicurus  necessarily contradicts himself by making use of precisely that assumption in practice.  Some modern proponents of Epicureanism seem to question whether this was indeed part of the ancient creed.  However, ancient commentators on Epicureanism generally take it for granted that this was one of their best-known doctrines.  Epictetus actually quotes Epicurus as saying:

Be not deceived, men, nor led astray, nor mistaken; there is no natural fellowship with one another among rational beings; believe me.  Those who say the contrary are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasons.

“Why do you care then?”, asks Epictetus.  Why do you teach?  Why did you labour day and night to write so many books of philosophy for others to read?  If we are deceived in this way, how does it harm your ability to enjoy peace of mind, Epicurus?  There seems to be a conflict here between the values being taught and the very act of teaching them to others.  In fact, Epicurus would attain more “security” for his pleasant way of life from other men, if he allows them to be “deceived”, as he puts it.  The goal of Epicureanism is supposed to be to preserve one’s lasting pleasure, or peace of mind, at all costs.  Epictetus is really rolling two criticisms into one here.  Epicurus’ actions seem hypocritical.  However, paradoxically, it also seems like anyone sincerely embracing Epicureanism would be better off to teach Stoicism to others, and the doctrine of natural affection toward mankind, because that would ultimately be more in their self-interest.

Why do you care, then?  Allow us to be deceived.  Will you far any the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that we do have a natural fellowship with one another, and that we ought by all means to guard it?  Nay, your position will be much better and safer.  […] What do you care how the rest of mankind will think about these matters, or whether their ideas be sound or not?  For what have you to do with us?  Come, do you interest yourself in sheep because they allow themselves to be shorn by us, and milked, and finally to be butchered and cut up?  Would it not be desirable if men could be charmed and bewitched into slumber by the Stoics and wlos themselves to be shorn and milked by you and your kind?  Is not this something that you ought to have said to your fellow Epicureans only and to have concealed your views from outsiders, taking special pains to persuade them, of all people, that we are by nature born with a sense of fellowship, and that self-control is a good thing, so that everything may be kept for you?

The Stoics believed that all men deserve our consideration, as brothers, and we should view ourselves as all citizens of a single state, consisting of the whole cosmos.  Epicurus at times appears to completely reject any fellowship among mankind or mutual obligation to benefit others.  However, even if he qualifies that by arguing that fellowship should be maintained selectively, for pragmatic reasons, it seems to cause further difficulties.

Or ought we to maintain this fellowship with some, but not others?  With whom, then, ought we to maintain it?  With those who reciprocate by maintaining it with us, or with those who are transgressors of it?  And who are greater transgressors of it than you Epicureans who have set up such doctrines?

In much the same way that the Skeptics try to defy nature by denying the reliability of our eyes and ears, Epicurus defies nature by denying our natural affections, and drive to benefit other humans.

A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean

In this Discourse (3.7), an actual conversation between Epictetus and a follower of Epicurus is reported. That’s important to note because sometimes, due to the notorious ambiguity of Epicurean teachings, people sometimes want to question whether Epictetus really understood Epicureanism.  It’s likely, however, that he had access to more Epicurean teachings than we do today.  Scholars believe Epictetus possessed rare copies of early Greek Stoic texts, which he read to students and was discussing with them in the surviving Discourses.  These may have been the books of Zeno, and more likely some of those by Chrysippus.  These quite probably contained references to early Epicurean teachings.  However, Epictetus would also have known many late Roman Epicureans personally.  As this Discourse proves, Epicureans visited him and apparently discussed philosophy in his school, in the presence of students like Arrian, who recorded this conversation.  So it’s probably unfairly dismissive to question his familiarity with the philosophy.  Epictetus probably knew a great deal more about the teachings and way of life endorsed by Epicureans than we ever will.

We’re told from the outset that the Imperial Bailiff or “Corrector”, a high-ranking government official, “who was an Epicurean”, came to visit Epictetus.  Epictetus welcomed the Epicurean by presenting himself as a relative laymen with regard to the teachings of Epicurus, in the presence of an expert, and seeking to learn more by questioning him.  That’s striking because it obviously resembles “Socratic irony”, the way Socrates would act as if he were ignorant, rather than play the part of a guru himself, and instead question his visitors in depth about their philosophical and ethical beliefs.  Epicurus himself did the opposite of Socrates and happily claimed to be an enlightened sage, which arguably led his followers to treat him as a guru figure.  (They celebrated his birthday every year, kept pictures of him, and memorised his teachings verbatim, etc.)  By contrast, the Stoics believed that the wise man is “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix”, a mythical bird supposedly born every five hundred years.  Neither Zeno nor any of the founders of the Stoa apparently claimed to be wise themselves.  Instead they seem to have classed themselves as fools, who were merely helping other fools to approach wisdom.  Seneca described himself as like a patient in one bed describing how his therapy is going to the patient in the bed beside him.  That attitude toward experts, or wise men, was a major practical difference between the Stoic and Epicurean schools, which shaped their respective discourses about philosophy.  Epictetus refers to himself here as a “layman” in philosophy, whereas Epicurus called himself a sage.  By contrast, although we may read an account of him explicitly denying that he is wise, after his death it appears that Epictetus may have been considered sage-like by his followers.

Once again, Epictetus then engages in what’s obviously a Socratic-style questioning, this time of his Epicurean guest.  He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.  However, Epictetus points out that this stands in direct contradiction to the Epicurean doctrine, which he describes as saying that: “pleasure of soul is pleasure in the things of the body” because “then they become matters of prime importance, and the true nature of the good.”

Epictetus also mentions another well-established criticism of Epicureanism, one also discussed by Cicero and others.  Epicurus, he says, does not condemn theft as wicked but says that it only becomes so because of the pain, or displeasure, caused by actually being caught, or worry about being caught.  It’s the pleasure that comes from avoidance of pain that’s the supreme goal of life, and avoiding theft and other vicious acts is merely a means to this end.  So Epictetus poses the obvious question: what if “the stealing be done secretly, safely, without anybody’s knowledge”?  There are many instances where we have the opportunity to act unethically without any risk whatsoever of detection.  Epictetus mentions also that if he happens to have “influential friends in Rome”, powerful friends, then an Epicurean may have very little motive to behave himself, being placed above fear of reprisals by his social status and connections in society.  If he sincerely believes that pleasure is his own highest good, for the sake of which he would be willing to sacrifice everything else, then there are bound to be many situations where this can be pursued without the fear of being caught that Epicurus claims should be sufficient to keep us from acting antisocially.

Epictetus goes on to mention another familiar response to the Epicureans: that they aspire to act virtuously but doing so is in conflict with the problematic ethical doctrines that they claim to follow.  He jokes that whereas the Stoics aspire to noble doctrines, although they sometimes fall short of them and lapse into base actions, the Epicureans aspire to base doctrines even when they engage in noble deeds.  He’s basically saying to his Epicurean guest: “You’re better than this.”  Your actions are good, but your philosophy isn’t fit for purpose because if you followed it consistently you should potentially be doing things that go against your own moral conscience.  There’s a contradiction between your philosophy and your way of life.

He then proceeds to discuss yet another familiar criticism of Epicureanism by posing the question very bluntly: “In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean state?”  Epicureanism often appeals to individuals, it’s self-interested in a particular way, but it’s far less appealing to imagine being surrounded by people adopting the same values, e.g., that your life and wellbeing would only be of value to them as long as it was consistent with their goal of preserving their own lasting pleasure and peace of mind.  Epictetus says the Epicureans say: “people ought not to marry”, nor have children, nor “perform the duties of a citizen”, i.e., participate in society.  If everyone embraced this philosophy, Epictetus says, society would simply collapse.  There could be no genuinely Epicurean state.  “Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the state, destructive to the family…  Drop these doctrines, man!”  We should look for philosophical doctrines that are consistent with our way of life, and help us to flourish and become good citizens.  That’s what we would want from other people around us.

The persuasive power of vice is so strong already – it’s the biggest challenge we face in life.  Why then, says Epictetus, embrace philosophical doctrines that potentially make this temptations seem even more powerful by judging our supreme good to reside in pleasure?  Pleasure, he says, should be subordinate to virtue, and not the other way around.  The Epicurean bailiff apparently claims he has power over other man, and influence at the Emperor’s court.  However, Epictetus concludes by saying this is not true leadership but that comes from the authority of someone like Socrates, whose wisdom and virtue make men want to emulate him as a role-model.

Scattered remarks by Epictetus

Elsewhere in the surviving DiscoursesEpictetus uses Epicureanism as a kind of insult against some of his students:

Do you not realize the kind of men they are whose language you have just uttered?  That they are Epicureans and blackguards?  And yet, while doing their deeds and holding their opinions, you recite to us the words of Zeno and Socrates? (3.24)

Elsewhere he makes a similar remark:

Why did you call yourself a Stoic?  Observe yourselves thus in your actions and you will find out to what sect of the philosophers you belong.  You will find that most of you are Epicureans, some few Peripatetics, but these without any backbone; fore wherein do you in fact show that you consider virtue equal to all things else, or even superior?  But as for a Stoic, show me one if you can!  (2.19)

In one of the surviving fragments (14), he seems to be saying that in contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics hold that “pleasure is not something natural, but a sequel of things that are natural, as justice, self-control, and freedom.”  Epictetus asks why the soul doesn’t take pleasure in its own goods  but rather in the inferior goods of the body.  He says, though, that nature has given us a sense of shame, which causes us to blush at vice, and this prevents him from “laying down pleasure as the good and end of life.”

But if I put what is mine in one scale, and what is honourable in the other, then the statement of Epicurus assumes strength, in which he declares that “the honourable is either nothing at all, or at best only what people hold in esteem.” (2.22)

He claims in another Discourse (2.23) that Epicurus has said that the flesh is the  most excellent part of man.  Epictetus claims that when Epicurus was dying and wrote “We are spending what is our last and at the same time a happy day?”, and when he wrote so many books to benefit his followers, it was not his flesh that prompted him to do so but his moral purpose (prohairesis).  We would have to act like we were blind to ignore the presence of a higher faculty within us than that of physical sensation.

If Epicurus should come and say that the good ought to be in the flesh, again the explanation becomes lengthy, and you must be told what is the principal faculty within us, and what our substantial, and what our essential, nature is.  Since it is not probable that the good of a snail lies in its flesh?  But take our own case, Epicurus: what more masterful faculty do you yourself possess?  What is that thing within you which takes counsel, which examines into all things severally, which after examining the flesh itself, decides that it is the principal matter?  And why do you light a lamp and toil in our behalf, and write such quantities of books?  Is it that we may not fail to know the truth?  Who are we?  And what are we to you?  And so the argument becomes lengthy.  (1.21)

Stoicism Defends Itself (Draft)

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

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

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

In the Beginning was the Word

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

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

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

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

Philosophy, what Philosophy?

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

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

Why Just Pick on the Stoics?

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

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

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

The Unproven Ethics of Stoicism

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

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

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

Stoics Have Feelings Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zeus, the Philosophers’ “God”

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

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

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

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

Stoics Prefer Things; Cynics Don’t

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

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

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

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

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