Stoicism and Tattoos

How to ink what it is Stoic to think

How to ink what it is Stoic to think

One of the most common questions I’m asked (honestly!) is what would make a good Stoic tattoo. If that surprises some people, it makes perfect sense to others, myself included — yes, I’m in the pro-tattoo camp! In this article, I’ll talk about the concept of Stoic tattoos, give some example phrases, and then talk about a Stoic tattoo I had done recently in Athens.

First off, Stoicism tattoos are definitely a thing. I’ve seen countless photos of people with Marcus Aurelius tattoos and the occasional quote from Seneca. There are Pinterest boards of Stoicism tattoo ideas, a blog article listing examples, and it’s a recurring question on the Stoicism Subreddit. We were paid the ultimate compliment recently when someone, out of the blue, sent us a photo of a tattoo based on artwork by Zé Nuno Fraga, the award-winning illustrator of our Stoicism graphic novel, Verissimus: the Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

There is, however, a logical reason for getting a Stoic tattoo. Not out of vanity, because it looks cool, but as a mnemonic or reminder.

Why Stoicism Tattoos?

It’s pretty unlikely that any ancient Stoics had tattoos. Generally, tattooing was perceived by the Greeks and Romans as a “barbarian” practice. Most slaves were of barbarian origins and it was also common, at times, to tattoo marks of ownership on slaves, e.g., on the forehead. So, basically, that would mean walking around classical Athens or the Roman Empire with a tattoo risked making you look like a slave — something you would definitely want to avoid! (Of course, a handful of Stoics were freed slaves, or barbarian immigrants, who may perhaps have had tattoos.) The ancient Scythians, in particular, were known for their elaborate animal-themed tattoos. They reputedly even inked their infants, something we couldn’t resist depicting in our graphic novel because a tattooed baby, thankfully, is not something you see every day!

There is, however, a logical reason for getting a Stoic tattoo. Not out of vanity, because it looks cool, but as a mnemonic or reminder. The Stoics followed in the footsteps of Socrates and, like their famous Athenian forebear, they were known for modelling themselves, in certain respects on the Spartans. Among other things, some of the Stoics, especially Zeno, the founder of the school, had a habit of speaking laconically. The word “laconic” means terse, a man (or woman) of few words. It comes from Lakonia, the geographical region in which the ancient city of Sparta was located. In other words, talking laconically means talking like a Spartan. For example, when Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, was conquering Greece with his army, he sent a series of warnings to Sparta concluding with the threat that if he defeated Sparta, he would enter their city, and destroy it completely. The Spartans sent back a one word response: “If” — that’s what we mean by laconic.

Someone complained to Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. once that his philosophical arguments were extremely laconic, or short on words. He jokingly replied that, yes, they were, and if he could he would even go further and abbreviate the syllables. That, I am certain, is because the Stoics valued simplicity and plain speaking, but also because they wanted philosophical arguments, and sayings, to be easy to memorize. It’s also why the Stoics are so quotable and one of our main sources of ancient aphorisms — it’s one of the main reasons we still remember their philosophy today. Because Stoic philosophical maxims are so laconic, in other words, they’re very Tweetable, and also very tattooable!

Another obvious phrase is the famous slogan of Epictetus, endure and renounce, or anechou kai apechou in Greek…

There’s a great example of this in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, where he basically explains that he’s condensing down the key ideas of his two favourite philosophers, Epictetus and Heraclitus, into two short phrases. In Greek they are only three words each: ὁ κόσμος ἀλλοίωσις, ὁ βίος ὑπόληψις meaning “the universe is change; life is opinion” (Meditations, 4.3).

The first means that everything in the physical universe is impermanent, Heraclitus’ famous doctrine of panta rhei, everything flows. The second, which confuses some people, refers to one of the main Stoic doctrines of Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” In other words, Marcus certainly doesn’t mean that everything is subjective but rather that our opinions shape our emotions, and thereby the quality of our life. We used that Greek slogan for the logo design on the Stoicon 2017 conference t-shirt — threw in a pretty metal-looking owl of Athena for wisdom and a memento mori skull — and they sold like hot cakes!

Another obvious phrase is the famous slogan of Epictetus, endure and renounce, or anechou kai apechou in Greek, probably an allusion to the cardinal virtues of courage and temperance. There are countless examples, though, of laconic phrases or aphorisms in Stoic texts, in both Greek and Latin. Bit of trivia: many Latin sayings from Seneca and other Roman thinkers were traditionally used on clocks and sundials. Those would also be a good source of inspiration for tattoos. How about a few more classics?

  • Memento mori — everyone’s favourite! “Remember you must die”, Epictetus, though not quoting the phrase, refers in passing to slaves whispering such phrases in the ears of triumphing Roman generals

  • Amor fati — “love your fate”, the Latin saying actually seems to have been coined by Nietzsche, although (deep trivia) there is an ancient Greek saying that means the same thing

  • Carpe diem — “seize the day”, which everyone knows from the movie Dead Poets Society; it’s a quote from the Roman poet Horace, who had studied, and wrote about both Epicureanism and Stoicism

My Stoicism Tattoo

I’ve got three tattoos. I’ve always liked the idea of getting a tattoo in cities I want to remember. I love Athens and have spent a lot of time there, researching and writing books on philosophy. (I am a dual British/Canadian citizen, but also now a Greek permanent resident.) I’ve been thinking for a long time about getting a Greek tattoo that would remind me of some fundamental Stoic teaching. Earlier this year, I went to one of the best tattoo parlours in Athens, Acanomuta. The owner is a great guy, super fast, and talented, and probably one of the few tattooists in the world who has no tattoos himself!

I believe it’s one of the earliest Stoic quotes, and to me at least, it’s one of the most important.

The phrase I got, in ancient Greek, is Οὐδὲν δεινὸν πέπονθας or “Nothing terrible has happened to you”. I believe it’s one of the earliest Stoic quotes, and to me at least, it’s one of the most important. Zeno, the founder of the school, suffered terribly, at first, from shyness. He trained for years under the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes, who taught him the practice of shamelessness to get over his social anxiety. Crates instructed Zeno to go and walk around the Kerameikos district of Athens, the old cemetery and potters’ district, where prostitutes also worked. He was to do so carrying a bowl of lentil soup, though, which clearly made him feel ridiculous and ashamed. (It was perhaps kind of a weird thing to do, in a pretty crowded area.)

Zeno nervously tried to hide the soup underneath his shawl, but Crates spotted him, and smashed it with his wooden staff, causing the lentil soup to dribble down his student’s legs. Zeno started to panic, presumably because he felt really embarrassed now. The prostitutes were probably laughing at him, and we can imagine a few toothless old ladies trying to solemnly attend to the tombs of their relatives, were turning their heads and glaring at him with severe disapproval. Zeno freaked out, and tried to run, but Crates stopped him, saying: “Nothing terrible has happened to you!” What did he mean?

It’s actually a beautifully laconic expression of one of the central doctrines of Stoicism. The Stoics believed that we impose our values on external events, which, by nature, are actually neutral. Sensations, for instance, happen to us, but we judge them to be good or bad, and project those values onto them. Something causes us to fuse those two ingredients together, though, so we tend to forget what we’re doing and treat them as if they were one basic experience of a “bad sensation”, such as “Argh, this pain is awful!” Epictetus, for instance, liked to tell his students “Do not say Alas!” (or WTF?). If someone, he says, is put in prison, you can tell yourself “He has gone to prison”, but there is no need to add the complaint “Alas!”

The Stoics think we need to remind ourselves to keep these two elements separate as one comes from outside, and the other from within. We should realize that we don’t need to impose strong value judgements on our experiences, we can just view them more objectively, with Stoic indifference. In other words, quite literally, nothing “terrible” had happened to Zeno. Some soup was running down his legs. That’s just a physical sensation, neither good nor bad in itself. The “terrible” part came from within, from his own opinion about it being shameful. Other people might see it as funny, or indifferent, or as mildly awkward but not terrible — he didn’t need to view it as terrible.

The Stoics would say that’s true of life in general. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Hamlet puts it. Physical events happen to us, and we add our value judgements to them. Strictly speaking, then, nothing terrible ever happens to us.

Do you have, or are you thinking about getting, a Stoic tattoo? Please let us know in the comments. For new ideas, check out our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

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