Lady Stoics #4: Chrysippus’ Mysterious Old Woman

Old Greek WomanDiogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.

Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.

The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him.  The next sentence reads:

Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.

Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?

She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books.  The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though.  Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three.  How much older than him could she have been then?  It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:

Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades.  Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.

We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his  philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.

He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].

This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.

It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name.  However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity.  He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:

When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go.  On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.

This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy.  His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead.  We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.

Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister?  We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus.  We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism.  Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:

  • Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
  • Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
  • To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
  • On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
  • Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
  • Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
  • Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
  • Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
  • Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.

And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here.  There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king.  Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.

The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon would later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:

Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.

These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox.  When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so.  If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies.  Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.

So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows…  It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him.  Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli.  They probably had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens.

Perhaps she attended his lectures.  Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering.  However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted.

We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king.  However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV.  Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism.  If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them.  Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.

Athens: Visiting Plato’s Academy

Plato's Academy signToday I visited the archeological site of Plato’s Academy.  Around twelve years after the execution of Socrates, Plato founded a philosophical school in the suburb of Athens known as the Academy, after which it took its name.  His school must have consisted of one or more lecture halls.  It was located in public grounds, basically a sort of park, that consisted mainly of a gymnasium with a wrestling school and various shrines and other buildings. Women were not allowed into the grounds of ancient Greek gymnasia but it’s said that two women disguised themselves as men in order to attend Plato’s lectures there.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyThe grounds are now referred to as the “Academy Park”, although originally it was known simply as the Academy, and the philosophical school later came to adopt the same name.  One theory is that the name originally meant “far away deme” or suburb, as it was located outside the ancient city walls of Athens.  (Later a story evolved that it was named after a hero called Academus.)

Plato hermThere’s a nice herm (statue) of Plato close to the park.  Two years ago a small “digital museum” was created nearby, which I also visited.  There’s a short film showing several local people who talk about how economically depressed the area is and that the site of the Academy was neglected until recently because many people didn’t even realize its significance.   One older man said something like “There used to be factories here and now we have thirty hairdressers and thirty pharmacies, and that’s about all.”  In the grounds of the Academy Park, where the ruins are located, children were playing, two guys lurking awkwardly beside the ruined palaestra (wrestling school) were drinking beer and smoking a pipe, and a middle-aged woman on a bench nearby, who looked very dishevelled, was talking to herself.  There’s a bit of litter and graffiti but it’s not too bad.  Still, it made me a little sad to see some of these locations.  On the other hand, the beautiful Acropolis Museum built in 2009 is arguably a much better example of how Greece’s cultural heritage can best be preserved.

Stoics at the Academy

Plato's Academy RuinsPlato’s most famous student at the Academy was Aristotle but after Plato’s death it was his cousin, Speusippus, who became the next head of the school, known as a “scholarch”.  He was succeeded by Xenocrates of Chalcedon.  We’re told that Xenocrates more would retire into himself, in private contemplation, several times each day, and that he assigned whole hour each day to silence.  Xenocrates was succeeded, in turn, by Polemo, who experienced a sort of conversion after hearing him speak.

In his youth [Polemo] was so profligate and dissipated that he actually carried about with him money to procure the immediate gratification of his desires, and would even keep sums concealed in lanes and alleys. Even in the Academy a piece of three obols was found close to a pillar, where he had buried it for the same purpose. And one day, by agreement with his young friends, he burst into the school of Xenocrates quite drunk, with a garland on his head. Xenocrates, however, without being at all disturbed, went on with his discourse as before, the subject being temperance. The lad, as he listened, by degrees was taken in the toils. He became so industrious as to surpass all the other scholars, and rose to be himself head of the school…  (Diogenes Laertius)

Although Polemo got into some trouble as a young man, through philosophy he later acquired a reputation for having such an unshakeably calm demeanour that he sounds like a true precursor of the Stoics.

…from the time when he began to study philosophy, he acquired such strength of character as always to maintain the same unruffled calm of demeanour. Nay more, he never lost control of his voice. This in fact accounts for the fascination which he exercised over Crantor.  Certain it is that, when a mad dog bit him in the back of his thigh, he did not even turn pale, but remained undisturbed by all the clamour which arose in the city at the news of what had happened.

We’re told that he withdrew from society and confined himself to the Garden of the Academy (the surrounding park) where his students built themselves little huts so they could live near the Shrine of the Muses and the lecture hall of the Academy, where they went to hear Polemo speak.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyZeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was originally (and perhaps mainly) a Cynic philosopher, although he also studied at other schools of Athenian philosophy, including spending ten years attending Plato’s Academy, under Xenocrates and later Polemo.  We’re told that even when Zeno was making progress as a philosopher himself, he was so free from conceit that he would still go to the Academy to study there under Xenocrates and later Polemo. Polemo made the jibe that Zeno was sneaking into the grounds of the Academy through the garden door, stealing their teachings and giving them “a Phoenician make-up.”

Enrollment Starts Today for How to Live Like Socrates (Live from Athens)

Socrates Quote

Enrollment begins today for the new version of How to Live Like Socrates, my four-week long e-learning course taking a deep dive into the life and philosophy of Socrates.  This time, though, it will be live from Athens, the home of Socrates!

To reward followers of my blog, I’ve created a special link that will allow you to receive 20% discount off the course price.  Just click on the button below or any of the other links in this post and your coupon code (SOCRATES20P) will automatically be applied.

Prison of SocratesI’ve been in Athens for a few weeks doing more research for the course –and taking a few photos!  I’ll be delivering Live Like Socrates from Athens too, including the live webinars.  To learn more just follow the links and you’ll get access to full details of the course.  You can also preview the welcome video, and read an overview of the course content.

Feedback from previous students who completed the pilot version of this course was very positive.  You can scroll to the end of this post to read their comments as well as the average satisfaction ratings (broken down into “clarity”, “impact” and “feasibility”) from their course evaluation forms.  The course is continually being revised and you’ll have lifetime access to the content as well as future updates.  Right now, I’m hoping to add more information on Socrates’ relationship with the Sophists and I’m working on a new comic strip illustration with our graphic designer Rocio de Torres –so stay tuned!

The course has a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.  If you change your mind within 30 days of your purchase, just let me know and we’ll refund your course fees in full.  So that makes booking completely risk-free!

Why not come and join us as we learn to live like Socrates – live from the heart of Athens…

Looking forward to meeting you on the course,

Donald Robertson Signature

What Previous Students Said

I gather structured feedback from course participants and analyze the data before revising my courses each time I run them.  For the initial pilot version of this course, satisfaction ratings were as follows.

  • Clarity of materials 4.7 out of 5.
  • Impact of content (how helpful) 4.6 out of 5.
  • Feasibility of courseware (how easy was the site to use) 4.6 out of 5.

Here are some feedback comments from students as well…

To really get a deeper perspective on how to live life with true vigor and taste it’s fullness, it is necessary to embrace, embody and savor the life and times of Socrates. This course has left no stone unturned as it presents the depth and magnitude along with the magnificence – in exploring Socrates and his place in human history. The pilot light has been lit inside of me…  – Melville Richard Alexander

One of the great things about Donald Robertson’s courses is that they never end. They are available to us forever (or at least as long as Donald is able to keep them posted). As with “How to think like a Roman emperor” I will be going back to this course when the spirit moves me. Each time I will discover something new. In the process of learning more about Socrates I learned more about me. Would I recommend this course? Yes, without hesitation. If you find it a bit much to “complete” in four weeks (I did) don’t worry. The material is there and the instructor is wonderfully accessible. – Wilfred Allan

Donald Robertson’s course has greatly increased my knowledge of the renowned ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates is such a central figure in Hellenistic Philosophy that understanding him is essential to knowing about the entire field. Robertson’s course has great depth, with multiple videos, texts to read, ponder, and discuss, weekly webinars, and enough background and optional material to further add to my knowledge and provide material that I plan to reread and explore. Very well done! – Marc Deshaies

I really enjoyed the course. I have been a fan of Socrates ever since I learnt about him years ago, but I know now that I was really ignorant about him and have lots to learn still. This is a great start. I look forward to more. Thank you Donald! – Pauline Enright

I’ve really enjoyed this course, thanks for putting it together, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to move through it at my own pace looping back to the challenging exercises, putting it down when other commitments took more or my time and picking it up again when I could. I’d recommend it, no question. – Steve Powell

I highly recommend this course. Reading Socrates without the biographical and historical background made me wonder what of significant value he was. Now knowing about his military, political,and social interactions gave me greater respect for him and the classical philosophy heritage. Demystifying the Socratic dialogues was very helpful. – Michael Schepak

How to Live Like Socrates: Live from Athens!

Hello from Athens!  

Earlier this year, I launched my brand new e-learning course called How to Live Like Socrates, which follows a similar format to my How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course on Marcus Aurelius.  How to Live Like Socrates is running again and enrollment opens in a couple of days, so I wanted to share some news…

Theatre of Dionysus

Following the annual Modern Stoicism conference in London, I flew to Greece.  I’ll be presenting How to Live Like Socrates this October online live from Athens!  The opportunity came up so I jumped at the chance and all of a sudden, well, it’s happening…  Students take part from all over the world but this time they’ll be watching as I do the live webinars from the home of Socrates himself.  That’s a picture I took recently of the Theatre of Dionysus where Aristophanes’ The Clouds, a famous satire mocking Socrates, probably had its first performance.

Prison of SocratesThis is me beside what the Greek ministry of culture like to call the “Prison of Socrates”.  Although there’s no evidence it’s where he was actually held awaiting execution, it’s still a very interesting archeological location and it can help bring to life the story of his last days.  Did you know that Socrates spent his time writing poetry in prison?  He wanted to put the fables of Aesop in verse.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Socrates then why not come along and join us as we work through his teachings and their practical implications for modern-day life.  I’ll be engaging participants in discussion about the life and philosophy of Socrates, and broadcasting my live weekly webinars from Athens this time.  You can find more information on my e-learning site.  There are some comments from students who did the pilot version of the course below.

LyceumHere’s another picture I took recently.  You’ve probably heard of the Lyceum where Aristotle taught philosophy.  But did you know that two or three generations earlier famous Sophists, like Protagoras and Prodicus, used to lecture at the Lyceum?  Socrates would frequently spend the day there discussing philosophy with them and their followers.  Some of the ruins have been found are now an important archeological site in Athens.

I’ll be available if you have any questions.  If you want a taster, by the way, try my free ten-minute Crash Course on Socrates, and let me know what you think.  I look forward to hearing from you.


Donald Robertson Signature

What Previous Students Said

I gather structured feedback from course participants and analyze the data before revising my courses each time I run them.  For the initial pilot version of this course, satisfaction ratings were as follows.

  • Clarity of materials 4.7 out of 5.
  • Impact of content (how helpful) 4.6 out of 5.
  • Feasibility of courseware (how easy was the site to use) 4.6 out of 5.

Here are some feedback comments from students as well…

To really get a deeper perspective on how to live life with true vigor and taste it’s fullness, it is necessary to embrace, embody and savor the life and times of Socrates. This course has left no stone unturned as it presents the depth and magnitude along with the magnificence – in exploring Socrates and his place in human history. The pilot light has been lit inside of me…  – Melville Richard Alexander

One of the great things about Donald Robertson’s courses is that they never end. They are available to us forever (or at least as long as Donald is able to keep them posted). As with “How to think like a Roman emperor” I will be going back to this course when the spirit moves me. Each time I will discover something new. In the process of learning more about Socrates I learned more about me. Would I recommend this course? Yes, without hesitation. If you find it a bit much to “complete” in four weeks (I did) don’t worry. The material is there and the instructor is wonderfully accessible. – Wilfred Allan

Donald Robertson’s course has greatly increased my knowledge of the renowned ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates is such a central figure in Hellenistic Philosophy that understanding him is essential to knowing about the entire field. Robertson’s course has great depth, with multiple videos, texts to read, ponder, and discuss, weekly webinars, and enough background and optional material to further add to my knowledge and provide material that I plan to reread and explore. Very well done! – Marc Deshaies

I really enjoyed the course. I have been a fan of Socrates ever since I learnt about him years ago, but I know now that I was really ignorant about him and have lots to learn still. This is a great start. I look forward to more. Thank you Donald! – Pauline Enright

I’ve really enjoyed this course, thanks for putting it together, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to move through it at my own pace looping back to the challenging exercises, putting it down when other commitments took more or my time and picking it up again when I could. I’d recommend it, no question. – Steve Powell

I highly recommend this course. Reading Socrates without the biographical and historical background made me wonder what of significant value he was. Now knowing about his military, political,and social interactions gave me greater respect for him and the classical philosophy heritage. Demystifying the Socratic dialogues was very helpful. – Michael Schepak

Socrates and the Stoics at the Lyceum

LyceumToday I visited the ruins of the Lyceum palaestra, or wrestling school, in Athens.  Pomegranate trees grow around the edge of the archeological site and there were butterflies.  (These are some of my photos of the site.)  The Lyceum was named after Apollo Lyceus, Apollo “the wolf-god”, to whom the whole area was dedicated.  He seems to have been a rural version of the god, who helped shepherds protect their flocks from wolves.  Historians aren’t sure of its exact boundaries but the area known as the Lyceum was quite large, lay just outside the city wall to the east of Athens, and encompassed a gymnasium, running track, religious shrines, various other buildings, and extensive gardens where visitors could walk in the shade provided by the trees.

We normally associate the Lyceum with Aristotle.  After initially studying at Plato’s Academy, Aristotle parted ways with Plato.  He then left Athens and on his return, in 335 BC, finding that the Academy had a new head, Xenocrates, he rented some rooms at the Lyceum and founded a school there.  It was also called the “Peripatetic” (walking, or strolling) school because he allegedly used to lecture while walking around the grounds of the Lyceum.  Diogenes Laertius says that Aristotle lectured there for thirteen years before retiring to Chalcis in 321-322 BC.

LyceumHowever, philosophers had been teaching at the Lyceum long before Aristotle set up his school there.  According to Plato, two or three generations before Aristotle, Sophists including Protagoras and Prodicus, the two most famous among them, used to lecture and give speeches at the Lyceum.  It seems that Socrates would also frequently spend his days there discussing philosophy with the Sophists and others.  And as we’ll see, the Stoics would later teach there as well.

Socrates and the Sophists at the Lyceum

According to Diogenes Laertius, the first famous Sophist, Protagoras, gave a public reading of his controversial book On the Gods at the Lyceum, at least according to some accounts.   (Or some say it was read in public by one of his students.)

As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.

That caused some controversy as you can imagine.  We’re told that, incensed by these words, the Athenians expelled Protagoras and burnt his writings in the agora, the city centre or marketplace of Athens.

However, according to Plato, Socrates would often walk to the Lyceum to discuss philosophy with the Sophists teaching there.  Socrates mentions being on his way to the Lyceum in Plato’s Lysis, returning from it in the Euthyphro, and in the Euthydemus he recounts a conversation he had there with two young Sophists.

Crito: Who was the person, Socrates, with whom you were talking yesterday at the Lyceum? There was such a crowd around you that I could not get within hearing, but I caught a sight of him over their heads, and I made out, as I thought, that he was a stranger with whom you were talking: who was he? […]
Socrates: He whom you mean, Crito, is Euthydemus; and on my left hand there was his brother Dionysodorus, who also took part in the conversation.
Crito: Neither of them are known to me, Socrates; they are a new importation of Sophists, as I should imagine. Of what country are they, and what is their line of wisdom? (Euthydemus)

In the pseudo-Platonic dialogue called the Eryxias, Critias is saying that if an intemperate man cannot refrain from over-indulging in food and drink, and other pleasures, then, paradoxically, it’s better for him to be poor than rich so that he can’t gratify his unhealthy desires.  In other words, as the Stoics later argued, money is neither good nor bad in itself, but can be used either well by the wise or badly by the foolish.  Socrates says that he heard the famous Sophist Prodicus using the same argument the day before in the Lyceum:

I heard that very argument used in the Lyceum yesterday by a wise man, Prodicus of Ceos; but the audience thought that he was talking mere nonsense, and no one could be persuaded that he was speaking the truth. And when at last a certain talkative young gentleman came in, and, taking his seat, began to laugh and jeer at Prodicus, tormenting him and demanding an explanation of his argument, he gained the ear of the audience far more than Prodicus. (Eryxias)

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, when everyone else is drunk and has fallen asleep, we’re told that Socrates leaves early in the morning to spend the rest of his day at the Lyceum, presumably discussing philosophy:

Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home. (Symposium)

So long before Aristotle’s time, the Lyceum was associated with the Sophists and later with Socrates, who liked to go there to talk with them and their students.  What about the Stoics, though?

The Stoics at the Lyceum

After Zeno, the founder of Stoicism died, the Athenians honoured him with an official decree, which Diogenes Laertius quotes in full.   Curiously, it was permanently inscribed on two stone pillars installed at the Academy and the Lyceum, the homes of the Platonic and Aristotelian schools respectively.

Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost. And that for the making of the crown and the building of the tomb, the people shall now elect five commissioners from all Athenians, and the Secretary of State shall inscribe this decree on two stone pillars and it shall be lawful for him to set up one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum. And that the magistrate presiding over the administration shall apportion the expense incurred upon the pillars, that all may know that the Athenian people honour the good both in their life and after their death. Thraso of the deme Anacaea, Philocles of Peiraeus, Phaedrus of Anaphlystus, Medon of Acharnae, Micythus of Sypalettus, and Dion of Paeania have been elected commissioners for the making of the crown and the building. (Diogenes Laertius)

We’re also told that after Zeno’s death, the third head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus, actually lectured at the Lyceum, presumably in addition to speaking at the Stoa Poikile, the traditional home of the Stoic school.

Demetrius above mentioned is also our authority for the statement that Chrysippus was the first who ventured to hold a lecture-class in the open air in the Lyceum. (Diogenes Laertius)

It’s not clear what Diogenes Laertius means.  Perhaps that previous philosophers had either spoken to small groups while walking there or lectured inside buildings whereas Chrysippus was the first to hold formal lectures publicly in the grounds of Lyceum.  It’s possible, though, that he means Chrysippus was the first Stoic to hold lectures at the Lyceum, which by that time was mainly associated with the Aristotelian school, but certainly not off-limits to other philosophers.

Centuries later, the last famous Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, would formally reintroduce a chair of philosophy at the Lyceum, after visiting Athens, a few years before his death.

Athens: Visiting the “Prison of Socrates”

Prison of SocratesThe Greeks tell tourists this house carved into the Hill of the Muses is the “prison of Socrates” but there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence for that.  Still, it’s worth a visit.  You could maybe climb though the bars and imagine that you’re awaiting a cup of hemlock, if you want to relive the great philosopher’s last days.  (Here are some photos from my trip to the so-called “Prison of Socrates”.)

The Stoics were particularly interested in the way Socrates resigned himself to his fate after being condemned to death by the Athenians.  For example, Epictetus wrote:

What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. (Discourses, 1.12)

Prison of SocratesFor the Stoics, in typically paradoxical fashion, anyone who resents his fate or craves more than he has effectively condemns himself to dwell in a psychological prison of his own making.  Socrates, by contrast, was as free as a bird, even as he sat chained in a cell.

Socrates was so indifferent to his own predicament that he spent his time discussing philosophy when his friends visited, or composing poems when alone.  This was something Epictetus saw as emblematic of his philosophical attitude toward death:

And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison. (Discourses, 2.6)

Epictetus would have his students say that it was not Socrates who was chained in prison but his body, while his mind remained as free as ever.

How strange then that Socrates should have been so treated by the Athenians. Slave, why do you say Socrates? Speak of the thing as it is: how strange that the poor body of Socrates should have been carried off and dragged to prison by stronger men, and that any one should have given hemlock to the poor body of Socrates, and that it should breathe out the life. Do these things seem strange, do they seem unjust, do you on account of these things blame God? Had Socrates then no equivalent for these things? Where then for him was the nature of good? Whom shall we listen to, you or him? And what does Socrates say? Anytus and Melitus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me: and further, he says, “If it so pleases God, so let it be.” (Discourses, 1.29)

Anytus and Melitus were the two main accusers who brought Socrates to trial.  This final part of the quote is also the closing line of the Handbook of Epictetus:

O Crito, if so it pleases the Gods, so let it be; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me.

These two quotes, from the Crito and Apology respectively, were obviously of great significance to Epictetus and his students.  Moreover, we’re told that a one of Epictetus’ heroes, Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, was known for saying: “Nero can kill me but he cannot harm me.”

Prison of Socrates

Where They Laughed at Socrates

Theatre of DionysusToday I visited the Theatre of Dionysus, the place where Athenians once gathered to laugh at Socrates.  Aristophanes first presented his satirical play The Clouds at the City Dionysia festival of 423 BC, and it was most likely performed on this very stage.  (Here is a photo I took of the theatre and a close-up the crouching Silenus, also a later Roman Silenus mask, which obviously resembles Socrates.)

Silenus at Theatre of Dionysus

The stage was later restored by the Romans who added the reliefs that now stand at the back of the stage, depicting scenes from the myth of Dionysus, including a crouching Silenus, his drunken tutor.  Plato’s Symposium depicts Alcibiades comparing Socrates to Silenus.  There is indeed a striking similarity between most depictions of Socrates and of Silenus.  This association was well-known so generations of theatre-goers looking at this crouching bearded figure must have been reminded, to some extent, of Socrates, especially if the satires Aristophanes and others, mocking him, were performed here.   As we’ll see, though, Socrates was ultimately depicted as exhibiting complete philosophical indifference to being ridiculed in public, like a true forerunner of Stoicism.

Silenus MaskSocrates is one of the central characters of The Clouds where he’d depicted as a pompous buffoon, apparently a cross between a natural philosopher like Anaxagoras and a Sophist like Prodicus.  He’s depicted running a philosophical school called The Thinkery where he charges high fees to reveal his wisdom.  Pallid long-haired young men dressed in dirty rags like beggars, and bearing staffs, hang on his every word, as if they’re members of a cult.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is depicted defending himself during his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.  He mentions that these charges aren’t the real reason he’s being brought to trial.  Among other things, he’s unjustly acquired a bad reputation among the Athenian public because slanderous rumours have spread about him fuelled by the plays of Aristophanes.

Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. […] As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other.

Aristophanes also mentions Socrates in two of his later satires: The Birds and The Frogs.  Three satires competed for the prize at the annual City Dionysia festival.  Remarkably, in the year The Clouds was performed one of the other two plays was also about Socrates,  the Connus of Ameipsias.  Socrates was clearly a popular target for satire in 423 BC.

A: Socrates – shining in a small gathering, eclipsed in a large – have you come to join us as well? Tough, eh? Where did you get that coat? No shoes on your feet. You’re bankrupting the cobblers with your insults!
B: Still he’d rather starve than flatter!

It’s striking that Ameipsias portrays Socrates as strangely dressed, shoeless, and starving – in a manner that seems very consistent with Aristophanes’ depiction of him.  Likewise, another poet called Eupolis, of uncertain date, was clearly more acerbic in his criticisms: “Yes and I loathe that poverty-stricken windbag Socrates who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.”  Socrates arguably sounds more like a forerunner of the Cynics in these plays: he’s consistently portrayed as someone who voluntarily dresses like a beggar, embraces poverty, and eats sparingly.

However, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates said “We ought not to object, he used to say, to be subjects for the Comic poets, for if they satirize our faults they will do us good, and if not they do not touch us.  There’s also a story that during one performance of The Clouds foreign visitors to the Athenian festival could be heard whispering “Who is this Socrates?”  Socrates silently rose from his seat making himself visible to the rest of the audience.  Although they didn’t know him, the foreigners would probably have been able to recognize his features from those caricatured on stage by the actor’s comic mask.  In other words, he wasn’t ashamed of being ridiculed as a pompous buffoon on stage but took it with good grace.

Athens Day One: The Stoa Poikile

Stoa Poikile my PhotoI arrived in Athens last night so this morning I decided to head straight for the Stoa Poikile, the home of Stoicism.  A Greek stoa is a colonnade: basically a row of columns supporting a roof.  The Stoa Poikile had a wall on one side giving shade, so it’s described as a portico or a plain old “porch”.  It’s also a bit like the ancient equivalent of what we might call a covered “arcade” today.  Stoa Poikile literally just means “painted porch” therefore.  It was so called because of the highly-regarded paintings that adorned the wall.  It was originally called the Porch of Peisianax, after the Athenian statesman who commissioned it in the 5th century BC.  (That’s my Photo of the Stoa Poikile in Athens, the other photos in this post are from the web.)

Poikile Stoa CafeThe part of the Athenian agora where it was located is now an archeological site in the middle of the city, although there’s not a whole lot to see there except the rubble walls of lots of ancient Athenian shops and many ruined wells, descending into the river that runs below.  There’s a bar situated beside and above the ruins, the Poikile Stoa, which is named after the ancient Stoa Poikile.  There wasn’t a lot of philosophy going on inside, though.  There was an assortment of classical paintings.

Stoa Poikile RuinsI asked the barman where exactly the ruined foundations of the Stoa Poikile were among the rubble below.  His version of the story was that the archeologists originally believed they’d found it but it turned out just to be the wall of another shop.  So they don’t know exactly where it is.  He said they know it must be somewhere nearby so they want to tear down his bar and “keep dig, dig, dig” underneath.  He was a bit annoyed about this and, pointing down toward the rubble, he ruefully observed: “Where you gonna drink beer?  You can’t drink beer in this, eh?”  Another young Greek at a table nearby having a drink with a young woman added: “We’re Greeks but we don’t know anything about history anymore; nobody cares”, shrugging and shaking his head sadly.  Someone else told me that the Stoa Poikile is there alright but they heard only a third of its ruined foundations remain.  (By some accounts the picture here shows what’s left of the Stoa Poikile beside the ruins of some nearby shops.)

Stoa of AttalusAnyway, there’s not much to see down there anymore.  Although the nearby reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus, another colonnade, probably looked fairly similar to the one we’re after. (It’s shown in this picture.) Perhaps so little remaining of the Stoa Poikile is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that even great architecture eventually crumbles, disappears, and is forgotten.

Anyway, we know that Zeno chose this as the home of his school, who were at first called Zenonians and later became known simply as the Stoics after the stoa where they gathered.  There are a few notable things about that…

Stories about the Stoa

The Stoa Poikile was a public building, a sort of porch offering protection from the sun.  The Cynics reputedly slept on such porches and it’s at least possible that Zeno, who had been a Cynic himself for many years, may have slept here at some point in his life, perhaps before founding his school there.  It’s very public and situated among the shops on the edge of the Athenian agora, precisely where Socrates used to mingle with craftsmen discussing philosophy.  Zeno was undoubtedly aware of that similarity and perhaps saw himself as teaching in public as Socrates had done before him.  By contrast, other schools of philosophy were typically located in gymnasia, or public spaces set aside for exercise and training, away from the hubbub of the marketplace.  Some have even seen the name “Stoic” as implying something like “philosophy of the street”.

Moreover, whereas other schools were named after their founders, such as Pythagoreanism or Epicureanism, the Stoics rejected this notion.  I think that’s because the Stoics insisted that none of them, not even Zeno, were perfectly wise.  Unlike the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, who did consider their founders to be perfect sages, the Stoics didn’t memorize Zeno’s teachings by rote learning.  Instead they were encouraged to employ the Socratic method and think for themselves, something we tend to think of now as a hallmark of true philosophy.  Zeno, incidentally, used to pace rapidly up and down the length of the Stoa Poikile while discoursing on philosophy, according to Diogenes Laertius, “his object being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers”.

The Stoa Poikile was, in a sense, a sort of Athenian art gallery.  Its wall was decorated with four large plates painted by Micon of Athens, Polygnotos of Thasos, and perhaps others.  They depict:

  1. The mythic battle between Theseus and the Amazons, a scene which may have been in Cleanthes’ mind, the second head of the Stoa, when he wrote that virtue is the same in men and women
  2. The legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks led by Agamemnon, after its defences had been breached by the Stoic hero Odysseus using the “Trojan Horse” trick
  3. The real, historical Battle of Oenoe where the Athenians defeated the Spartans, although the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans for their self-discipline
  4. The historical Battle of Marathon (490 BC) where the Athenians won a great victory against the Persian army, during the reign of King Darius I

So Zeno lectured in front of these four huge paintings depicting various real and imaginary battles.  Possibly Epictetus was influenced by something the early Greek Stoics had said about the Amazonomachy scene dominating the location of their school, for instance, in Discourse 2.16.  He tells his own Stoic students “nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica” but that instead of defeating monsters and barbarians to clear the region around Athens, they should clear away the evil things within themselves, such as sadness, fear, desire, envy, and intemperance, etc.  Epictetus also brings up the Trojan War several times, such as at Discourses 1.28 when he says:

When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men, this is being besieged, this is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.

Were scenes such as these, which he discusses with his Stoic students, also discussed by the early Greek Stoics while they paced up and  down before Polygnotus’ famous painting, which actually depicted the fall of Troy?

Given this visual backdrop to the Athenian Stoic school, it’s perhaps no surprise, indeed, that a range of both artistic and military metaphors find their way into Stoic writings  I like to imagine, for instance, that Zeno might have told his students that although the scenes of battle depicted looked realistic and showed graphic violence, no sane person was afraid of them, because they realize they’re just pictures (impressions) and not the things they represent, to borrow a phrase used centuries later by Epictetus.  That’s just speculation, of course.  Although, Marcus Aurelius, who painted himself and was actually first introduced to philosophy by his painting master, appears to be referring to visual aesthetics in the following remarkable passage:

And ears of corn bending towards the earth, and the wrinkled brows of a lion, and the foam dripping from the jaws of a wild boar, and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe, he will find scarcely anything which fails to please him in some way by its presence, even among those that arise as secondary effects. Such a person will view the gaping jaws of wild beasts in their physical reality with no less pleasure than the portrayals of them displayed by painters and sculptors, and he will be able to see in an old woman or old man a special kind of mature beauty, and to look on the youthful charms of his slave boys with chaste eyes. And one could cite many similar examples, which will not seem persuasive to everyone, but will only strike home with those who are genuinely familiar with nature and all her works. (Meditations, 3.2)

Note: Marcus says here that the Stoic wise man will regard the gaping jaws of ferocious beasts such as lions and wild boars with the same indifference that he views their depiction by artists and sculptors.  Could this remarkable idea go back to something Zeno may have said about the paintings on the porch  Marcus, of course, also says that “life is warfare”, a theme that may have occurred to Zeno and his students as they met each day to discuss philosophy before a backdrop depicting the carnage of ancient warfare.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius adds a shocking historical detail: “It was the spot where in the time of the Thirty 1,400 Athenian citizens had been put to death.”  If this is true, Zeno would have also known about it, and it therefore perhaps inspired some of the Stoic thoughts about the theme of death.  The Thirty Tyrants were basically a puppet oligarchic regime or junta installed over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War by the victorious Spartans.  They were vastly unpopular because they soon turned to into brutal tyrants, rounding up and executing foreign residents (metics, immigrants) and democrats.  They carried out summary executions of the wealthy in order to line their own pockets by seizing their assets.  Zeno would have known that Critias, the head of the Thirty Tyrants, and a former pupil of Socrates, allegedly tried to pass a law banning his old teacher from discussing politics or philosophy, because he was criticizing the regime indirectly.  Socrates said that a good shepherd does not diminish thus the size of his flock, which Critias rightly took to be a criticism of the mass executions being carried out by him.   Socrates seems to have ignored this ban.  Critias then employed a tactic used on others and ordered Socrates to join a small posse to arrest and summarily execute an innocent man called Leon of Salamis, another foreign resident, perhaps with democrat sympathies.  Socrates simply refused.  Critias had hoped either to implicate him in his crimes or, if he refused, to be provided with a pretext for executing him, for disobeying a direct order.  However, the oligarchy was overthrown by a democrat uprising before they could have Socrates executed, so he got away by the skin of his teeth.

Anyway, Zeno was probably also aware that Socrates had risked his own life defying the orders of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in this way.  This famous example of courage in the face of injustice, demonstrated by Socrates, was likely also in his mind as he lectured every day at the Stoa Poikile, the scene where such executions were carried out.  I was tempted to tell my barman friend that 1,400 ancient Athenians were summarily executed on the ruined porch underneath his establishment, probably by strangulation rather than hemlock like Socrates, but I’m not sure he would have wanted to know that.

Stoicon Questions

Marcus Young and OldLeo Bowder, who’s a philosophy teacher doing some research on Stoicism, gave me some interesting questions to answer about popularizing Stoicism.  So I thought I might as well share my responses online because answering them properly helps me to think through my opinions about Stoicism.  I find that’s both beneficial for me and also useful when people ask me similar questions in the future, which happens more and more these days…

Q1: There is still a certain connation of the word ‘stoic’ that might take some time to shift, if it ever does. How can we make Stoicism more appealing for a wider audience, and go beyond the dictionary definition of the term?

Yes.  I think there are several things we can and should do to remedy this.  You can tackle problems directly or indirectly.  Often it’s a good idea to begin by trying the direct approach but actually I don’t think we’ve given that a fair crack of the whip.  So I’m thinking of writing a series of blog articles myself directly addressing the most common misconceptions about Stoicism, one at a time.  I’d encourage other people to do the same thing, if possible.  Those are things like the misconception that it’s about being repressed or unemotional, that it’s overly-masculine, that it’s politically passive, and so on.  Some of your other questions below touch on related issues.

I also think that we can address this problem more indirectly by teaching Stoicism in different ways.  My new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (in press), tries to do that by focusing on metaphors, anecdotes and the person of Marcus Aurelius, the most famous Stoic.  I think we should be doing more of that by talking about the lives and personalities of ancient Stoics, and perhaps also modern examples.  For instance, if someone thinks that Stoic acceptance means being a doormat or overly-passive, that misconception is more easily dispelled by talking about the very disciplined and active life that Marcus Aurelius led as Emperor.  He was actually a workaholic and, with no military experience whatsoever, took command of the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier – about 140,000 men strong – in order to defend Rome during a crisis, after a huge invasion.  By telling these stories and then linking them to what he says about Stoic philosophy we can blow some of the misconceptions about it out of the water.  That often seems easier than just trying to debate them in a more dry and philosophical way, by poring over the texts to discuss doctrines in abstraction from real life.  So if we start with stories about Stoic individuals, such as Marcus, and then bring in the philosophy, I think we arrive at a more rounded and human conception of the philosophy.  We put a human face on Stoicism.

Q2: (Related)- Stoicism has a reputation for upholding somewhat ‘macho’ approach to life- how can it be made more attractive to both men and women, as an approach to life?

Perhaps by talking more about the few women we hear about who were associated with Stoicism, such as Fannia (wife of Thrasea) or Porcia Catonis (daughter of Cato).  There’s slender pickings in the histories, though.  So looking at the work of modern female authors on Stoicism is important and maybe also non-Stoic role models whose example might be relevant to women.

I believe the overly-masculine misconception of Stoicism can also be addressed head on, as I mentioned earlier.  I’m thinking about writing a book on what I call “Compassionate Stoicism”, for example.  (Yes, I know it seems like an oxymoron, perhaps it’s not the best word to use although I find it starts a good conversation – the title How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is a bit of a puzzle that gets people thinking as well.)  Stoicism, in my view, is a philosophy of love.  That’s a perspective I’d like to develop more fully.  There are many good quotes in the literature that help to support this view.  Marcus Aurelius, for instance, says that real manliness consists not in anger but in the virtue of kindness.  He says that the Stoic ideal embodied by one of his favourite tutors, a man he greatly admired, is to be “free from [irrational] passions and yet full of love” or natural affection (philostorgia).  Marcus also refers many times to empathy and forgiveness as important aspects of Stoicism and he exemplified this in his own life when he shocked everyone by pardoing Avidius Cassius, the usurper who tried to intitiate a civil war against him to seize the throne.  This is what I mean by “Compassionate Stoicism”.  I think if we had a few books and articles that approach the whole philosophy through the lens of compassion, or if you prefer “kindness”, that would help to restore some balance and address the overly-macho caricature of Stoicism that people feel can be misleading.

Q3: How might Stoicism deal with modern technology and particularly social media- with the emphasis that many Stoic thinkers put on modesty and the simple life, as well as its shortness (re. Seneca)?

I think we should be trying to turn Facebook into Zeno’s ideal Republic.  One step at a time, of course, and obviously in a looser modern sense.  We should reconceptualize the ideal Stoic community to fit modern Stoic values and we should try to dedicate every keystroke to that goal, pursuing our external values under the Stoic “reserve clause” by adding the caveat “Fate permitting”.    Facebook is the modern equivalent of the Athenian agora, where Socrates talked with tradesmen about philosophy, or even the Stoa Poikile itself where Zeno lectured in public before strangers.  It’s not Facebook (or other social media) that upset us but our (value) judgements about them.  It’s neither good nor bad in itself but what matters is the use we make of it.  Social media by nature, though, is as neutral as the proverbial pot of water that can be used either to boil an egg or to boil your granny alive.  It’s a testing or training ground for Stoicism, if we approach it the right way.  We just have to remember, and be mindful, that every keystroke is an opportunity to exercise either virtue or vice.  We should, for example, ask ourselves before sending a Tweet whether it is in accord with reason and virtue and whether it contributes to our own welfare and the common welfare of mankind, or not.

Q4: (Related) aside from online communities, and occasional meet ups- how can Stoicism be manifested in ‘real world’ communities?

Resilience training for children and other groups, for prevention of mental health problems.  Self-help book clubs.  I talk to people in shops about Stoicism quite a lot.  Yesterday I was chatting to a man I’d met for the first time about something Socrates reputedly said concerning reversals of fortune.  I tell my daughter stories about philosophy and I’ve written some of them up and published them online.  We should also be developing stronger links between the local meetup groups (through the Stoic Fellowship) and the Stoicon-x local annual conferences that Modern Stoicism encourages people to run, and helps them to promote.  Those two things are reciprocally beneficial.  People might attend a small conference in a nearby city run during Stoic Week and then decide to join the local meetup group, or vice versa.  I also think there’s a lot more scope for art to be used in disseminating Stoic ideas and I’m particularly interested in the use of metaphors from classical philosophy for this purpose.  (I’ve also been working on comic strips with an artist recently and I should mention that Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer for Modern Stoicism, has developed some very creative Stoic objects, as have other artists.)   This year, of course, we had an art installation inspired by Epictetus at the Stoicon conference venue in Senate House Library, in the University of London.

Q5: (And this is very much tied into my project P4A- Philosophy for Adults) What is it that might appeal about Stoicism- and particularly Roman imperial Stoicism- to the over 40s, or those later on in life?

Well, when people reach the venerable age of forty, and decrepitude takes hold, they should be read Book One of Plato’s Republic, which funnily enough is all about that very subject.  Youngsters should read it too.  I read it when I was about sixteen and for some reason it always stuck in my mind.  It begins with a short dialogue between Socrates and a wealthy old metic, an immigrant, called Cephalus, who ran a succesful business outside Athens.  Ironically, in this dialogue it’s Cephalus who’s the proto-Stoic, although elsewhere similar arguments are put into Socrates’ mouth.  Cephalus says that he knows lots of other old men who complain about their aches and pains, and so on, but he’s quite content.  So if old age isn’t a burden to everyone, he concludes, it must be our judgements rather than the thing itself that upsets us.  Socrates chides him about the fact that people will say it’s easy for him because he’s very wealthy.  Cephalus replies with a lovely anecdote, which I won’t explain here, but the upshot is that wealth may indeed be an advantage to the wise but it won’t help the foolish very much – they’ll just be rich fools instead of poor ones, and still miserable.

There are lots of anecdotes and sayings in the Socratic and Stoic literature that directly relate to old age, and such challenges in life.  (And texts such as Cicero’s On Old Age.) So I think it’s helpful to discuss those and focus on issues that might be relevant such as how to deal with children, or grandchildren, and perhaps how to cope with pain and illness, or our changing circumstances in life as we make the transition through different stages of life.

Q6: (Bearing in mind the answer to the above question) Alternatively, how can Stoicism appeal to youngsters?

I think young people are often more interested in stories and characters, because they’re often seeking role models.  So that brings me back to what I said earlier about another way of approaching Stoicism, by telling stories about famous Stoics, such as Zeno, Cato of Utica or Marcus Aurelius, as well as honorary Stoics (Stoic heroes) such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic, or even the mythic heroes Hercules and Odysseus, who were admired by the ancient Stoics.  Maybe even other fictional characters could be discussed from a Stoic perspective and I suppose a half-way house would be doing a Stoic reading of the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, for example.  These are ways I think we’re more likely to engage people in their early teens.  Stoicism has an advantage over CBT here as many young people are put off by the whole notion of “therapy” or “counselling” whereas Stoicism might achieve similar things (or resilience-building) without the associated stigma, at least for some people.

Q7: What are the advantages of this philosophy over (a) particular religion(s) AND/OR can it be used alongside faith when it displays a range of interpretations as to the existence/nature of the divine?

Well the Neostoics show that Stoicism and Christianity can be combined, of course.  So I think Stoicism has already, over centuries, shown itself to be flexible enough to accomodate different religious views.  The ancient Stoic school was alive for nearly five centuries, in Greece, Rome, and the near east.  From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, a lot changed in the culture and language, and values, but Stoicism survived and adapted.  I know from experience that many people today will say that their perception, put crudely, is that Stoicism offers a secular alternative to Christianity, or a more Western alternative to Buddhism, or a more down-to-earth alternative to academic philosophy, or a more philosophical alternative to CBT, and so on.  So although these comparisons are simplistic, that’s how people tend to relate to the subject, at least to begin with.

So Stoicism appeals to people above other religions, in my experience, because they see it as being more philosophical and based upon reason rather than upon faith, revelation, or tradition.  Westerners also sometimes say they relate to it if they like Buddhism, or other eastern religions, but find them a bit too exotic or obscure.  Stoicism has its obscurities but people (Westerners) often say it feels more familiar to them somehow, and more relatable.  It resonates with ideas they perhaps recognize from their education and the culture they’ve absorbed, from influences such as Christianity or the legacy of Greek and Latin poetry, and the influence of the Renaissance on the arts.  So, for example, people have probably seen Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull and they “get” the idea of a memento mori.  So when Epictetus talks about the origin of this concept – slaves riding in chariots behind triumphing generals and emperors, reminding them of their own mortality – it often rings a bell somehow.  So I find people often have a déjà vu moment when they first learn about Stoicism because they suddenly join the dots between lots of fragments of wisdom they’ve absorbed from their culture.  It’s as though they’d been standing among rubble and suddenly realized those rocks and stones were actually once the foundation of a magnificent ancient temple.    They might not get that from Daoism, though, for example.

Q8: Very briefly: how can we use Stoicism in actual, day to day living?

Do Stoic Week to find out about that.  There’s no substitute for reading the Stoic texts, and trying to put it into practice, though.  Start where the Stoics tell us to start.  Consider very deeply indeed what qualities you admire in other people.  Socrates asks Critobulus: What qualities would you look for in the ideal friend?  Then turn the tables and ask what you’re doing today to acquire those virtues yourself.  Change your behaviour and improve your character one small step at a time.  Review your progress.  When you feel your emotions are getting in the way, ask yourself what’s actually under your direct control and what isn’t.  Take more responsibility for the things you can change, and learn to accept other things, which are, to some extent, in the hands of fate.  Think of the bigger picture, to get things back in perspective when you feel as if life is getting on top of you.  Try to understand other people as acting out of weakness, or ignorance, rather than malice, so that you can forgive them and either tolerate them or set them right.  Remind yourself that it’s not things that upset you but your judgements about them.  And view them as transient in the grand scheme of things, because one day you’ll be gone yourself, and so these passing moments that seem like a nuisance should be nothing to you, in a sense.  Make the most of the opportunity you have to fulfil your potential in life, by thinking clearly and exercising reason: dare to be wise.