Stoic Meditation in The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen

The following passages from the Earl of Shaftesbury are based on his reading of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  He describes a common Stoic and Platonic meditation exercise, which essentially involves trying to contemplate the whole of space and time, as if entering the mind of God:

View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Deity, p. 19)

After quoting Marcus Aurelius, “To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are”, Shaftesbury wrote concerning the grand vision of the history of the universe, and the flux of things:

Consider the several ages of mankind; the revolutions of the world, the rise, declension and extinction of nations, one after another; after what manner the earth is peopled, sometimes in one part and then in another; first desert, then cultivated, and then desert again; from woods and wilderness, to cities and culture, again into woods; one while barbarous, then civilised, and then barbarous again; after, darkness and ignorance, arts and sciences, and then again darkness and ignorance as before.

Now, therefore, remember whenever thou art intent and earnest on any action that seems highly important to the world, whenever it seems that great things are in hand, remember to call this to mind: that all is but of a moment, all must again decline. What though it were now an age like one of those ancient? What though it were Rome again? What though it were Greece? How long should it last? Must not there be again an age of darkness? Again Goths? And shortly, neither shall so much as the name of Goths be remembered, but the modern as well as ancient Greeks and Italians be equally forgotten. […]

Such is the state of mankind; these are the revolutions. The tree sprouts out of the ground, then grows, then flourishes awhile; at last decays and sinks, that others may come up. Thus men succeed to one another. Thus names and families die; and thus nations and cities. What are all these changes and successions? What is there here but what is natural, familiar, and orderly, and conducing to the whole? Where is the tragedy? Where the surprise or astonishment? Are not these the leaves of the wood carried off with the winter blast, that new ones may in the spring succeed? Is not the whole surface of the earth thus? and are not all things thus? Is it not in these very changes that all those beauties consist which are so admired in nature, and by which all but the grossed sort of mankind are so sensibly moved? The sum of all this is, that be this what season soever of the world, be it the very winter that thou livest in, or be it in the spring, all is alike. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Human Affairs, pp. 70-71)


The Platonic Dictionary: Cardinal Virtues

These come from the Platonic dictionary of philosophical terms called Definitions, which was probably written by one of Plato’s followers at the Academy.

aretê (virtue)

The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

phronêsis (prudence)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

dikaiosunê (justice)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

sôphrosunê (temperance)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

andreia (courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

Related Terms

eudaimonia (happiness/wellbeing)

The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.


The Axiochus of Pseudo-Plato

Axiochus of Pseudo-Plato


Fear keeps pace…

Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. Thus it is that foresight, the greatest blessing humanity has been given, is transformed into a curse. Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.



Solon, seeing a…

Solon, seeing a very friend of his at Athens mourning piteously, brought him into a high tower and showed him underneath all the houses in that great city, saying to him “Think with yourself how many sundry mournings in times past have been in all these houses, how many at this present are, and in time to come shall be; and leave off to bewail the miseries of mortal folk, as if they were your own.”

I would wish you, Lipsius, to do the like in this wide world. But because you cannot in deed and fact go to, do it a little while in conceit and imagination. Suppose, if it please, that you are with me on the top of that high hill Olympus; behold from there all towns, provinces, and kingdoms of the world, and think that you see even so many enclosures full of human calamities. These are but only theatres and places for the purpose prepared, in which Fortune plays her bloody tragedies. […]

Which things think well upon, Lipsius, and by this communication or participation of miseries, lighten your own. And like they [Roman generals] which rode gloriously in triumph, had a servant behind their backs who in the midst of all their triumphant jollity cried out often times “you are a man” [and “remember you must die”], so let this be ever as a prompter by your side, that these things are human, or appertaining to men. For as labour being divided between many is easy, even so likewise is sorrow.

The Neostoic Justus Lipsius

Excerpts Stoicism

The Serenity Prayer and Stoicism

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

The most fundamental principle of Stoic psychotherapy can be found in the very first sentence of the famous Enchiridion or Stoic “handbook” of Epictetus: “Some things are up to us and others are not.”   The importance of this maxim and the wider implications of absorbing its meaning and implications are explored in detail throughout the ancient Stoic literature.

The Enchiridion is a condensed guidebook to Stoic life which draws upon the more lengthy Discourses of Epictetus, which claim to record discussions held between the Stoic teacher and groups of students.  Just like the Enchiridion, however, the Discourses begin with a chapter dedicated to the theme: “On what is in our power, and what is not.”  Epictetus begins by explaining the Stoic view that our judgements and opinions are pre-eminently within our power to control, whereas external events, especially sources of wealth and reputation, are ultimately in the hands of Fortune.  Hence, the Stoic should always strive to cope with adversity by having ready “at hand” precepts that remind him “what is mine, and what is not mine, what is within my power, and what is not” (Discourses, 1.1.21).  Indeed, Epictetus goes so far as to define Stoicism itself as the study of this distinction.

And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)

This distinction forms the premise for two closely-related principles.  First, that the Stoic should cultivate continual self-awareness, mindful of his thoughts and judgements, as these lie at the centre of his sphere of control.  Second, that he should adopt a “philosophical attitude to life”, as we now say, meaning that one should Stoically accept those things which are none of our concern or outside of our power to control.  Epictetus attempts to sum up these notions in a laconic maxim of the kind which the Stoics meant to be easy to memorise and constantly “ready to hand”.

What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)

Elsewhere, Epictetus expresses the same point by saying, “And thus, this paradox becomes neither impossible nor a paradox, that we must be at once cautious and courageous: courageous in what does not depend upon choice, and cautious in what does” (Discourses, 2.1.40).  By “nor a paradox” he means “not contrary to commonsense”, i.e., that this advice seems strange at first but should appear self-evidently true upon reflection.  Modern therapists will probably recognise this as the basis of the “Serenity Prayer”, used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other therapeutic and self-help approaches, which usually takes the following form,

God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It allegedly derives from a similar prayer written by the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940s (Pietsch, 1990, p. 9).  However, the resemblance both to Stoic doctrine and terminology is unmistakable to anyone familiar with the literature of the subject.  As it happens, courage and wisdom are two of the four cardinal virtues of classical Greek philosophy, along with self-control and justice.

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition

Stoic Quotes from Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy (1712)

If there’s a Power above us
(And that there is, all Nature cries aloud
Through all her works),
He must delight in virtue;
And that which He delights in must be happy. (Cato)

‘Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it. (Portius)

Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths
Than wound my honour. (Juba)

Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence.
His virtues render our assembly awful,
They strike with something like religious fear,
And make even Caesar tremble at the head
Of armies flush’d with conquest. (Sempronius)

That Juba may deserve thy pious cares [Marcia], I’ll gaze for ever on [Cato] thy godlike father,
Transplanting one by one, into my life,
His bright perfections, till I shine like him. (Juba)


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The duration of a man’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to decay. His soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.

What is it then that will guide man? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a man to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within him, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from himself and his own proper actions: all things that happen unto him to embrace contentedly, as coming from Him from whom he himself also came; and above all things, with all meekness and a calm cheerfulness, to expect death, as being nothing else but the dissolution of those elements, of which every living being is composed.

And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by this their perpetual conversion of one into another, that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common unto all, why should it be feared by any? Is not this according to nature? But nothing that is according to nature can be evil.

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book II, Section 15


Stoicism Workshop at Exeter University

I’m posting this again, mainly to test out the special video post feature on WordPress, which I’ve never used before! It’s a very well-made video describing the workshop on Stoic philosophy and psychotherapy that took place at Exeter University earlier this year. I was there along with some of my friends and other academics and psychologists and therapists. The whole thing was organised by Prof. Christopher Gill. It led to the Stoic Week project, which was a huge success in terms of publicity for Stoicism, featuring in The Independent and Guardian (twice) newspapers!


Whoever it was …

Whoever it was who said, “Fortune, I have made a pre-emptive strike against you, and I have deprived you of every single loophole,” was not basing his confidence on bolts, locks and fortifications, but on principles and arguments which are available to anyone who wants them. […] For if the mind is self-indulgent, and takes the easiest courses all the time, and retreats from unwelcome matters to what maximizes its pleasure, the consequence is weakness and feebleness born of lack of exertion; but a mind which trains and strains itself to use rationality to conceive an image of illness and pain and exile will find that there is plenty of unreality, superficiality and unsoundness in the apparent problems and horrors each of them has to offer, as detailed rational argument demonstrates. (Plutarch, On Contentment, 467C)

Plutarch was a Platonist but perhaps influenced to some extent by aspects of Stoicism.